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Black and Blue Friday: Violent and Crazy Moments in Holiday Shopping

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© Michael Maloney/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

This Friday, 152 million people—that’s half the population of the United States—will flock to shopping malls, big box stores, online merchants and retailers across the country to shell out an estimated $465.6 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.

Known as “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. While the name Black Friday is often explained as the day major retailers "get in the black" and become profitable for the year, etymologists say the term has been around since the 1960s and was originally coined by Philadelphia policemen annoyed by the traffic and throngs of shoppers on the streets the day after the national holiday.

With retailers feverishly advertising bargain basement sales, touting one-day-only offers, and scheduling store openings for the wee hours of the morning, increasingly enormous mobs of raucous bargain hunters have started showing up, camping out, or staying up all night to bang down the doors—sometimes literally—when the store opens. In the last three years, thousands of shoppers and employees have been trampled, pummeled, squished, elbowed, punched, shot at, beaned in the head by flying merchandise and, just once, killed in the ensuing melee. In 2008, a 34-year-old seasonal employee, Jdimytai Damour, died from asphyxiation after 2,000 shoppers knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.

That’s perhaps the worst Black Friday story, but it’s certainly not alone. YouTube videos and shoppers’ blogs detail many an early morning Black Friday stampede, not to mention outright brawls over half-price gaming systems, food processors, toasters and all manner of stocking stuffers.

The Injury Report

Last year, nine people in a California shopping mall were injured, including an elderly woman who had to be taken to the hospital, after a rugby-style scrum erupted when gift certificates were dropped from the ceiling.

In Buffalo, New York, several more shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz, who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground, told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.

In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fist fights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores. Down in Boynton Beach, Florida, a man in a crowd of eager shoppers waiting for a Wal-Mart to open was found carrying a handgun, two knives and a pepper spray grenade.

But last year wasn’t the worst of it. In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1,000. The New York Times reported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”

That same year, inside a Toys R Us in Palm Desert, California, two women erupted into a dispute and began punching each other in the face until their friends—unluckily, both men with handguns—entered the fray.

The men chased each other through the toy store, careened around Christmas decorations and half-price electronics, and eventually shot each other to death by the cash register.

(Toys R Us later released a statement saying that although the shoppers’ deaths arose as a result of a dispute, which broke out in an aisle of Toys R Us on Black Friday, it would be “inaccurate to associate the events of today with Black Friday.”)

Two years after that incident, a 21-year-old women who’d been waiting outside another Toys R Us store in Madison, Wisconsin, freaked out, cut in line, and pulled a gun on her fellow shoppers.

Black Friday has become such a blood sport in recent years that even personal injury lawyers have gotten into the feeding frenzy, posting special “Black Friday”-related information on their websites to remind shoppers to be careful—and just in case they’re not, to offer up legal services.

Safety First. And Bullhorns.

In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a special checklist this year for retailers expecting large crowds this Friday.

So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, when the charging shoppers come a’runnin’, stay out of the way.

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The Origins of 10 Thanksgiving Traditions
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There's a lot more to Thanksgiving than just the turkey and the Pilgrims. And though most celebrations will break out the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, there are a number of other customs that you might be less aware of (and some that are becoming too ubiquitous to miss).

1. THE TURKEY TROT FOOTRACE

Many towns host brisk morning runs to lessen the guilt about the impending feast (distances and times vary from race to race, but the feel-good endorphins are universal). The oldest known Turkey Trot footrace took place in Buffalo, New York, and has been happening every year since 1896. Nearly 13,000 runners participated in the 4.97 mile race last year.

2. THE GREAT GOBBLER GALLOP IN CUERO, TEXAS

During their annual TurkeyFest in November, they gather a bunch of turkeys and have the "Great Gobbler Gallop," a turkey race. It started in 1908 when a turkey dressing house opened in town. Early in November, farmers would herd their turkeys down the road toward the dressing house so the birds could be prepared for Thanksgiving. As you can imagine, this was quite a spectacle—as many as 20,000 turkeys have been part of this "march". People gathered to watch, and eventually the first official festival was formed around the event in 1912. The final event of the celebration is the Great Gobbler Gallop, a race between the Cuero turkey champ and the champ from Worthington, Minnesota (they have a TurkeyFest as well). Each town holds a heat and the best time between the towns wins. The prize is a four-foot trophy called "The Traveling Turkey Trophy of Tumultuous Triumph."

3. FRANKSGIVING

From 1939 to 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up by a week. In '39, Thanksgiving, traditionally held on the last Thursday of November, fell on the 30th. Since enough people would wait until after Thanksgiving to start their Christmas shopping, Roosevelt was concerned that having the holiday so late in the month would mess up retail sales at a time when he was trying hard to pull Americans out of the Great Depression. It didn't entirely go over well though—some states observed FDR's change, and others celebrated what was being called the "Republican" Thanksgiving on the traditional, last-Thursday date. Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas all considered both Thanksgivings to be holidays. Today, we've basically split the difference—Thanksgiving is held on the fourth Thursday of November, regardless of whether that's the last Thursday of the month or not.

4. THE PRESIDENTIAL TURKEY PARDON

TIM SLOAN / AFP / Getty Images

The story goes that since at least Harry Truman, it has been tradition for the President of the U.S. to save a couple of birds from becoming someone's feast. Records only go back to George H.W. Bush doing it, though some say the tradition goes all the way back to Abraham Lincoln pardoning his son's pet turkey. (Lincoln is also the President who originally declared that the holiday be held on the last Thursday of November.) In recent years, the public has gotten to name the turkeys in online polls; the paired turkeys (the one you see in pictures and a backup) have gotten creative names such as Stars and Stripes, Biscuit and Gravy, Marshmallow and Yam, Flyer and Fryer, Apple and Cider, and Honest and Abe last year.

5. THANKSGIVING PARADES

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Everyone knows about the Macy's Parade, but for a more historically accurate parade, check out America's Hometown Thanksgiving Parade in Plymouth. The parade starts with a military flyover and continues with floats and costumed people taking the parade-goers from the 17th century to the present time. There are nationally recognized Drum and Bugle Corps, re-enactment units from every period of American history, and military marching units. And military bands play music honoring the men and women who serve in each branch: the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard.

6. BLACK FRIDAY

Black Friday, of course, is the day-after sales extravaganza that major (and minor) retailers participate in. Most people think that the term comes from the day of the year when retail stores make their profits go from red to black, but other sources have it originating from police officers in Philadelphia. They referred to the day as Black Friday because of the heavy traffic and higher propensity for accidents. Also, just because you hear that it's "the busiest shopping day of the season" on the news, don't believe it. It's one of the busiest days, but typically, it's hardly ever the busiest, though it typically ranks somewhere in the top 10. The busiest shopping day of the year is usually the Saturday before Christmas.

7. CYBER MONDAY

Black Friday is quickly being rivaled in popularity by Cyber Monday. It's a fairly recent phenomenon—it didn't even have a name until 2005. But there's truth to it—77 percent of online retailers at the time reported an increase in sales on that particular day, and as online shopping has continued to grow and become more convenient, retailers have scheduled their promotions to follow suit.

8. BUY NOTHING DAY

And in retaliation for Black Friday, there's Buy Nothing Day. To protest consumerism, many people informally celebrate BND. It was first "celebrated" in 1992, but didn't settle on its day-after-Thanksgiving date until 1997, where it has been ever since. It's also observed internationally, but outside of North America the day of observance is the Saturday after our Thanksgiving.

9. FOOTBALL

JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images

It's a common sight across the U.S.: parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles passed out on the couch watching football after dinner. Well, we have the first Detroit Lions owner, G.A. Richards, to thank for the tradition of Thanksgiving football. He saw it as a way to get people to his games. CBS was the first on the bandwagon when they televised their first Thanksgiving game in 1956. The first color broadcast was in 1965—the Lions vs. the Baltimore Colts. Since the 1960s, the Dallas Cowboys have joined the Lions in hosting Thanksgiving Day games, and the NFL Network now airs a third game on that night.

10. NATIONAL DOG SHOW

Of course, if football isn't your thing, there's always the National Dog Show. It's aired after the Macy's Parade on NBC every year. Good luck telling your dad that he'll be enjoying Springer Spaniels instead of the Lions or Cowboys, though.

A version of this story originally published in 2008.

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Why Do We Wish on the Turkey’s Wishbone?
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Although Thanksgiving is a North American holiday and a recent invention in the grand scheme of things, the tradition of breaking the wishbone comes from Europe, and is thousands of years older.

A bird’s wishbone is technically known as the furcula. It’s formed by the fusion of two clavicles, and is important to flight because of its elasticity and the tendons that attach to it. Clavicles, fused or not, aren’t unique to birds. You and I have unfused clavicles, also known as collarbones, and wishbones have been found in most branches of the dinosaur family tree.

The custom of snapping these bones in two after dinner came to us from the English, who got it from the Romans, who got it from the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization. As far as historians and archaeologists can tell, the Etruscans were really into their chickens, and believed that the birds were oracles and could predict the future. They exploited the chickens' supposed gifts by turning them into walking ouija boards with a bizarre ritual known as alectryomancy or “rooster divination.” They would draw a circle on the ground and divide it into wedges representing the letters of the Etruscan alphabet (which played a role in the formation of our own). Bits of food were scattered on each wedge and a chicken was placed in the center of the circle. As the bird snacked, scribes would note the sequence of letters that it pecked at, and the local priests would use the resulting messages to divine the future and answer the city’s most pressing questions.

When a chicken was killed, the furcula was laid out in the sun to dry so that it could be preserved and so that people would still have access to the oracle's power even after eating it. (Why the wishbone, specifically—and not, say, the femur or the ulna—is a detail that seems to be lost to history.) People would pick up the bone, stroke it, and make wishes on it, hence its modern name.

As the Romans crossed paths with the Etruscans, they adopted some of their customs, including alectryomancy and making wishes on the furcula. According to legend, the Romans went from merely petting the bones to breaking them because of supply and demand. There weren't enough bones to go around for everyone to wish on, so two people would wish on the same bone and then break it to see who got the bigger piece and their wish. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me—Were there really that few chickens being slaughtered in Rome? If a resource is already scarce, why would you break what supply you do have into pieces?—but I can’t find much more than this about the bone-breaking aspect of the tradition.

Anyway, as the Romans traipsed around Europe, they left their cultural mark in many different places, including the British Isles. People living in England at the time adopted the wishbone custom, and it eventually came to the New World with English settlers, who began using the turkey’s wishbone as well as the chicken’s.

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