Christmas Shopping the Boomer Kid Way

As young children, we boomers faced many challenges when it came time to shop for Christmas. Our first challenge, of course, was transportation. As youngsters, we were at the mercy of our parents. Once we got to be eight or so, walking (with our neighborhood group) to any stores within a couple of miles became possible, but in earlier times, the family car was it. “Family car” was singular, because it was extremely rare for a middle-class suburbanite to have more than one car in the 1950s and 60s.

In that era, stores were not open every night of the week. More than likely, they were open two weekday evenings, plus Saturdays … and never on Sunday. With dinner being served between 5 and 6 p.m., that left little time for actual shopping since stores would close promptly at 9 p.m.

When it came time to jump into the car and visit a store, chances are it was to a major department store. Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney and Sears, Roebuck and Company were the biggest, though there were regional department store chains that had also expanded to the suburbs. The different departments gave each member of the family the opportunity to search for something on their list.

The typical plan of action was to split up into two camps, with some of the children going with the father, the others with the mother. It was not unusual for families to have two to six boomer children in tow. Splitting up enabled the children to shop for the siblings or parent they were not attached to at the moment.

Children were expected to use their own money to purchase gifts. It helped those who received an allowance to learn the virtues of savings. Mister Boomer did not receive an allowance, so money at the pre-teen age came by way of birthday gifts from grandparents, snow shoveling and pop bottle redemption. Sometimes a parent would sweeten the pot and contribute a few dollars to Mister Boomer’s Christmas fund.

For many families, including Mister Boomer’s, the Christmas shopping season was not complete without a visit to Downtown. There, children could visit the “real” Santa, since we all knew the suburban stores only used his helpers. Even more, families could make a day or evening out of viewing the holiday decorations and window displays. Dressed in snow suits and galoshes, our mittens were attached to our coat sleeves by way of clasps on either end of a small piece of elastic. We’d trudge through the snow and marvel at the festive lights, giant snowflakes and ornaments hovering on lampposts, and garlands of evergreens scenting the air with the unmistakable aroma of the holidays.

The major department store that sponsored the Thanksgiving Day parade always had the most elaborate window displays. Animatronic characters in seasonal tableaus told a story in each window. Macy’s, in New York City, had begun the tradition of holiday window decorations in the late 1800s as a way of luring more Christmas shoppers. Now, in boomer time after the War, Downtown stores took up the banner as a way to lure the new suburbanites back Downtown. For the most part, it worked.

Mister Boomer vividly recalls one such Downtown visit. After the obligatory visit to Santa (Mister B was a non-Santa believer by then, thanks to his skeptical nature even at age six, but the final straw came by way of his brother’s prodding), Mister B and his sister were lead to a special “Children’s Shopping Land.” The store had sectioned off an area where parents weren’t allowed, and children could shop on their own. Mister Boomer walked through the entryway of giant candy canes, holding the hand of his younger sister who trailed behind. Inside, a single aisle snaking around displays kept children moving in the right direction, with helper elves along the way. Display bins were filled with low-cost items children could afford. Getting near the end, Mister B hadn’t found anything he deemed acceptable. Finally, he hovered at a bottle of bubble bath for his mother. It was a large, opaque white glass bottle with a flower painted on it. His indecision, though, sprang from the price – it was above the budget he had in mind. After some whining from his sister, Mister B decided to purchase the gift. The path lead directly to the checkout register and ultimate exit, where parents could collect their children. Mister B’s parents did just that, but his brother said the children weren’t done shopping yet. Taking charge of Mister B and his sister, he lead them to another area of the store.

Mister B’s brother had seen a Norelco electric shaver — the same one that was advertised on TV — that he thought would be the perfect gift for their father. There was no way he could afford the gift on his own, so he needed his two siblings to contribute to the purchase. Arriving at the counter, a good-natured man in a white shirt and tie removed a hard-shelled, rounded corner case from the display and opened it for us to view. An electric shaver with pivoting circular blades appeared. It was a true symbol of modern man, and what they wanted for their father. Gathering their last bit of dollars and change, they were just able to come up with the cost of the gift.

This is the commercial that had caught Mister Boomer’s and his siblings’ attention. Of course, he saw it in black & white.

Arriving back at the designated meeting spot, the family made their way to the store exit as the announcement was made for closing time. They quickly made their way through the revolving doors; all but Mister B, that is. He had hesitated. The whirl of the doors was just too much for him. The speed was too fast and it didn’t seem likely to him that he would make it through. Now on his own on one side of the door while the family was on the other, they urged him to “come on!” but he froze in place. Finally, with more shoppers gathering behind him, he garnered the gumption to step into the whirling doors. He entered with such conviction that as his arms reached up for the door handle, the bag containing his bubble bath gift swung like a pendulum, abruptly stopping at the glass with a large, ominous crack. “Oh NO!” he thought, but there was no time to dally, he had to get out of the door. Stepping into the outside, the family began their walk back to the car. Mister B, trailing back a few steps, carefully reached down and felt the outside of the bag. It seemed OK. Evidently his family, focused on coaxing him through the door didn’t notice this secondary drama going on, so it looked as if he might get a pass on his latest bout with clumsiness.

Once home, Mister B took the bubble bath bottle from the bag and carefully inspected it. It was a Christmas Miracle! The bottle remained completely intact. All that was left was to wrap it and place it under the tree.

Mister B cannot remember what his mother thought of the bubble bath. But attending his father’s funeral a couple of years ago, Mister B came across the Norelco shaver in his parents’ house. Bearing the marks of years of use, it was still in its case as it was when the Boomer children wrapped it up a lifetime ago.

How about it, boomers? Is there a gift you purchased that you can point to that helps define your early boomer years?

Boomers Made Black Friday

Now that we are are “officially” in the holiday gift-buying season, let’s examine the effect boomers have had on Black Friday. Before the first boomers were in their teen years, the term “Black Friday” referred to a day in 1869. Two speculators had tried to corner the gold market, which resulted in the collapse of the price of gold. In fact, all events referred to as “black” days of the week had traditionally indicated ominous events, usually with a financial connection. The great Stock Market Crash of 1929 is often referred to as “Black Tuesday.”

It is the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression that lead us into the beginnings of the Black Friday story. In 1939, the Depression still had hold of the country and things remained pretty bleak for the majority of consumers and businesses. Since November contained five Thursdays that year, Thanksgiving would fall on the final day of the month. For businesses, that meant the holiday selling season would only be 24 days long. There had been an unwritten rule among retailers and consumers for many decades that holiday shopping should begin after Thanksgiving. For that reason, many large department stores across the country started to sponsor Thanksgiving Day parades as early as the 1920s as a way to usher in the holiday shopping season.

Boomers may or may not have recognized the alliance between commerce and Thanksgiving during their Wonder Years, but this clip surely shows it was there in 1960.

Business leaders had suggested the holiday be moved before, but with the Depression lingering in 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to move Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, from the last Thursday position it had held since President Lincoln signed the first holiday proclamation in 1863. The thinking was that retailers would be helped out by adding an extra week to the holiday shopping season. It was not an idea that was well received. Only 22 states decided to adopt the new Thanksgiving Day. This prompted humorist Will Rogers to declare that there were two Thanksgivings: one for Democrats and one for Republicans, since Republicans were overwhelmingly against the idea. Congress finally got around to approving the date change in 1941, moving Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, where we celebrate it today.

Despite the discrepancies in the Thanksgiving holiday celebration date, there still was no mention of Black Friday. That would wait until long after the War. So long after, actually, that the first wave of post-war boomer children had reached their teens and twenties. The first mention of the day after Thanksgiving being called Black Friday dates to 1966. That’s when police officers in Philadelphia referred to the day as being “black” because of the huge problems vehicular and pedestrian traffic caused them. Since many people were home for the holiday weekend, they would flock to see the city dressed in its holiday best. Retailers joined in the “black” foray to lament the onslaught of shoppers that would descend on them the day after Thanksgiving. Many boomers will find it hard to recall a day-after event named Black Friday. It had not really coalesced into a full-blown marketing event during our formative years, though some stores did grab the name for their sale advertisements.

While the parents of boomers helped create the circumstances surrounding Black Friday, it was the Boomer Generation that took it to its next level. By the 1980s, boomers were in charge as store owners, managers, marketers and as parents themselves. We had already become the greatest consumer generation the country had ever seen, and now we were poised to elevate our own paean to shopping. It was about this time that attempts were made in the press to change the ominous “Black Friday” to one that referred to “in the black,” which meant a time when retailers were “out of the red” and into the profit-making zone. It wasn’t necessarily true for many retailers, but sounded like a reasonable explanation for calling the day “black.” In the 1980s, the country was in a recession. As a result, deep discounts began to be advertised for the day after Thanksgiving as a way of luring shoppers to specific stores. Sales usually centered around clearance items, with the occasional “loss leader” (the limited quantity, highly discounted item) tossed in as bait. Therefore, it was the Boomer Generation that set the stage for Black Friday, though it took the children of boomers to take it to the level of insanity that now occurs.

Boomers recall a time in their youth when stores not only didn’t open at 4 a.m., they rarely opened before 9 a.m. It was even rarer for one to stay open past 9 p.m. In most areas, stores were not open on Sundays, even during the holiday season. As the sixties became the seventies, seven-day-a-week retail store hours were becoming accepted as the new norm. It would seem a somewhat logical progression that the next twenty years would see an extension of the hours to earlier and later. This season, however, another milestone has been reached; the first mention Mister Boomer can recall of retail stores staying open 24 hours a day, beginning on Thanksgiving Day. In our younger days, it was a source of pride for stores to post a sign stating they would be closed on the holiday, “So our employees may celebrate with their families.” Now, the new source of pride appears to be the “always open” sign.

What do you think about Black Friday, boomers? Is it a logical extension of our boomer-sixties mantra of, “If it feels good, do it,” or have we become the next generation of carpetbaggers, eager to wring out the last drop of profit from an all-too-willing public?