What Black Friday taught me about Christmas shopping

Nov. 24, 2012 @ 07:01 PM

This Black Friday, my husband and I did the impossible — we went shopping. And it was fun.

I grew up poor. If I asked for a pricey gift, my father would regale me with stories of growing up during the Great Depression. He and his siblings got farm equipment for Christmas. One year, my grandparents saved up enough for the most amazing present their children had ever beheld - an orange.

My husband, Brian, was one of five children. A big Christmas for him was a new sweater and some socks. Maybe, if he was good, he got underwear. Maybe.

Neither of us are hung up on material things. Nice stuff is nice, but I've lived a happy and fulfilling life having never owned a purse that retails for more than $25. We both work jobs we enjoy for little pay. I drive a worn-out old car. Most of Brian's clothes were out of style in the 80s. Our cats eat better than we do. But we're happy.

I'd never felt tempted to spend a cold, uncomfortable night camped outside a store for a chance to buy some shiny gadget du jour. I never found something I wanted bad enough. I was even self-righteous enough to believe I was "above" that.

Oh, I was so wrong.

The siren song of a 50" Emerson LCD HDTV that Walmart advertised for $299 drew us out of our bed at 3 a.m.

Sure, we had a big TV in the living room, but here was our opportunity for a another for upstairs. Two HDTVs would end regular arguments over who got to watch her good shows on the big tv and who watched his stupid shows on the old one.

So we drove to Walmart, two hours early for the 5 a.m. tv sale. We two blurry-eyed novices marched through a half-full parking lot and through the huge sliding doors.

After several questions, we found the line for the tv.

"Hey man, you here for the 50" tv?" a guy in line ahead of us said. "I hate to tell you this, but that guy got the last ticket."

It seemed we arrived ten minutes after the last of 35 tvs were spoken for.

"Really?" I asked the nice Walmart associate assigned to the line.

"Really," she said. "The dude who's first got here at 8 last night."

No one had counted the number of boxes in the back of the store, she said, but 35 was the number on the shipping manifest. I made an embarrassingly immature face and walked back to Brian.

"I'm staying," Brian said. "Somebody might decide they don't want theirs and put it back."

Might as well try, he said.

"What else are we going to do?"

"There's this neat thing called sleep," I said. "All the well-rested kids are doing it."

Soon, a department manager, an ex-military type named Bobby, came by to count how many were in line.

"You don't have a ticket," he said. "We got 35. That's it."

Brian explained. Bobby said he didn't blame us for waiting.

"People have been doing it all night. They wait in line for half a day and then decide they don't want it once they have it," he said. "It might be your lucky day."

I married Brian because he was only other person alive who was more stubborn than me. But he's also more outgoing. While I paced around the craft section, he struck up conversations with the people in line. Lucky number 35 was a young man with a young family. He spent $3,000 three years ago for his first 50" HDTV. Mr. 34 didn't go into detail, but alluded to threats of violence from his oldest daughter over a big tv of her own as his motivation for being there. An older lady, number 33, planned this as the big Christmas present for her grandbabies. I returned to find Brian forging friendships with the very barriers to our capitalistic happiness.

Because 32 lived from one Social Security check to another, this was likely her only opportunity to buy something this nice for her family, she said. Only a few years ago, 35 spent $3,000 on one, but he has a newborn and has to save money. After Walmart, 34 muttered something about going to Best Buy for some Disney Princess thing he had to buy to keep the peace in his own home.

And that's when it occurred to me that these were not materially-obsessed super-shoppers. They were poor like us, trying to buy more with less. They were no more unknown to me than my grandparents saving a day's pay for a few pieces of citrus fruit for kids who never had them before.

"Alright, it's your lucky day," Bobby said, beaming as he walked up those of us at the end of the line. "My guys can't count. We have 42 of the 50" tvs, so you'll all get one, plus a few for whoever shows up later."

I must say that it is nice to be able to see every wrinkle on the faces of television personalities while sitting in either my living room or upstairs. But I could live without it. What I'm happier about is that Christmas is still about ordinary people trying to please the people they love. Yes, some people only think about things at Christmas. But sometimes the expression of love comes in the form of a huge tv, and sometimes it's simply sacrificing a little of yourself for someone else.