The holiday season, commonly defined as November to December, is the time of year when Americans spend the most, mainly on gifts for their nearest and dearest, and retailers gain the most. Last year, spending over the holiday season reached an impressive USD $626.1 billion, according to the NRF, holiday sales can now contribute to a retailer’s yearly revenue by as much as 30%.
We need to travel way back in time to before the Middle Ages to find the origins of celebrating winter festivals and gift-giving. The period of Late Antiquity (between the 2nd and 8th centuries AD) – centuries before America was first visited by the Europeans – marks the first known winter festivals, and occasions to exchange gifts with family and friends.
At that point, pagans in Europe and the Middle East celebrated various winter festivals such as Saturnalia, a harvest festival that celebrated the return of the sun, and Yule. History tells us that pagans loved to celebrate these merry occasions with a drink – or several – and by exchanging gifts.
Over 10 centuries ago, the gifts offered were fairly minimalistic. Pagans handcrafted their own gifts, such as wax candles and figurines, to offer family and close friends.
The 21st century has seen the internet’s role transform holiday shopping behavior. Amazon and eBay came on to the scene in 1995 and by the mid-2000s, over 1 billion consumers were shopping online. When President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation establishing Thanksgiving in 1863, he decreed the holiday would fall on the last Thursday of November. And it did until 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order to move Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November. Congress passed legislation to make the change official in 1941.
The term “Black Friday” predates e-commerce, suburban shopping malls, and even city-center department stores. In fact, according to The History Channel, the first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” had nothing to do with holiday shopping.
In 1869, two unscrupulous oligarchs conspired to corner the American gold market, which was at that time the basis for the U.S. dollar. Their scheme was so elaborate and far-reaching that members of then-president Ulysses S. Grant’s family were implicated. The plot finally unraveled on Friday, September 24, sending U.S. financial markets into a tailspin, ruining countless investors, and tanking the broader economy. That dark day came to be known as “Black Friday.”
Regardless of religious preferences, plenty of other countries celebrate end-of-year holidays. These holidays almost invariably involve gift-giving. In an increasingly consumerist world, many national cultures embrace the traditionally American end-of-year retail blowout.