Here's the unavoidable truth: Black Friday is as much of a holiday in America as Thanksgiving.
For some of us, lining up in the cold for gadgets and toys has replaced the traditional turkey, stuffing and family togetherness as hallmarks of the holiday season.
I've been covering Black Friday for the last four years. In the past it's always started the same way, with a frenzied drive to every Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us in the Dallas area. But this year I was in Winchester, Virginia, and it made for a somewhat different experience. Black Friday here coincides neatly with the heart of the hunting season. Which meant about a fifth of the crowd was decked out in full camouflage.
There was a severed deer head in the back of one truck. Someone had enough time before shopping to process the carcass, but not the head. I can understand the rush though. Black Friday this year started much earlier than even I was used to.
In prior years the stores open their doors around 7 AM for the first waves of customers. This year, Best Buy kicked things off at goddamn midnight. And the store didn't close again until 10 PM on Black Friday. Which means the poor blue shirts inside were pulled away from their families on Thanksgiving many hours earlier than usual. But hey, it's a worthy sacrifice to allow thousands of American families to buy 42" HDTVs for only $200.
That was the king of deals this year. And it's probably more accurate to say that 'dozens' of families managed to snag it. The store I was at only stocked ten of them. Which didn't stop the managers from ordering their employees to lie about the number of TVs they had in.
"We have stacks and stacks of them," one blue shirt walked through the line assuring customers. "We ordered a ton."
A hundred or so customers fled their spot in line at the news that none of the doorbuster's remained. Which still left hundreds more twisting around the back of the store. I made my way to the very tip of the line to talk to the fortunate few who were early enough to receive a voucher.
At the head was a family of six. A husband and wife, their son and daughter and respective spouses. They'd been camped out in a tent since the previous morning.
"We didn't do Thanksgiving this year." said the family matriarch, "This is sort of our new family tradition."
Standing out in a freezing cold line for two nights seems like a poor replacement for turkey, liquor and heating. But they seemed happy enough. Which is more than I can say for most of the line. The further back I went, the angrier people were.
"They lied to us. We came here expecting the deals they advertised. Why would they send out hundreds of ads if they only had ten?"
I asked why they were still in line... and got the predictable response.
"We need a new TV. So we'll end up paying more money for a smaller one. But I won't be coming out here again."
I'm not sure how much I believed them. It's easy enough to complain about the unethical behaviour of a company like Best Buy. But it's more difficult to actually stop giving them money. Which, of course, is why they always get away with it.
Most of the line had no lofty ambitions for doorbuster deals, or a chip on their shoulder over missing out. They had modest wish lists. Video games and monitors and printers and other small ticket items. One teen waited three hours to save $60 on a 3 terabyte hard drive- not at all unreasonable.
Over and over again, people told me they'd made the decision to drop by at the last minute, out of a desire to save a little money and finally see just how crazy this Black Friday phenomenon really was. They laughed, talked to their mates in line and socialised while they huddled against the cold.
At the end of the line I ran into a young man from India. He had no wish list, save a burning desire to see just how crazy Americans can be. He found the whole thing amusing, but essentially benign. I asked if he had any interest in buying a new TV, or any of the other discounted items.
"No, I don't need them."
Which is not a sentence I heard anywhere else that night.