In November 2012, I wanted to escape the holiday hustle in the United States—crowded airports and shopping malls, congested streets, and family feuds at the dinner table—so I headed to Italy.
On Thanksgiving Day, I hopped on a train from Naples to Sorrento, passing Mount Vesuvius and the ancient city of Pompeii along the way. Before boarding a bus to the picture-perfect village of Positano along the Amalfi Coast, I had an hour to kill in Sorrento, a coastal town perched high above cliffs overlooking the Bay of Naples. What stood out to me most was not Sorrento’s historic center, sweeping coastal views, or beautiful parks, plazas, and churches. Rather, what stood out—and actually smacked me right in the face—were the huge Black Friday sale signs I saw plastered all over shop windows.
Black Friday wasn’t always linked with consumer culture and shopping mayhem, however. The New York Times reported how in the 1960s, tourists would descend on Philadelphia the day after Thanksgiving in anticipation of the annual Army-Navy football game that would take place on Saturday. Philadelphia police are said to have begun calling the day “Black Friday” because officers had to work long hours and deal with terrible crowds, weather, and traffic. Local retailers that wanted to attract shoppers that day tried to rebrand it as “Retail Friday,” but it didn’t stick.
Eighty years later, we’re still celebrating Black Friday and now, apparently, so are the Europeans.
For Thanksgiving in 2021, I spent a week in Madeira, Portugal, a dreamy European island that is like Hawaii without all the tourists. Madeira is my favorite place on Earth (and I visited again this past winter) because it has dramatic ocean views, picturesque vineyards, and the prettiest and most diverse hiking I’ve found anywhere in the world. I love absolutely everything about Madeira—except their celebration of Black Friday. Come on, Madeira! Cristiano Ronaldo is from your island; why can’t you just make the day after Thanksgiving “Cristiano Day”? You know you want to! Want to do some Black Friday shopping in Madeira yourself? Lucky you, as Get Your Guide is offering Black Friday deals on Madeira tours.
Meanwhile, in France, most shopping has traditionally taken place during two big official sales periods (“les soldes”) around January and July. According to Kate Schwab with Atout France (the France Tourism Development Agency), about 10 years ago Black Friday sales started popping up in Paris and other French cities. Schwab says that Black Friday sales have been picking up steam in the past few years, particularly in the form of online shopping on French Amazon and at department stores. This year, the Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette even launched a pre-Black Friday sale.
To avoid Thanksgiving madness in the U.S. this year, my sister and I flew to Budapest, Hungary, where we joined a Grand European Tour river cruise with Viking. The trip spent a couple of days in Budapest, a few days in Austria, and a week in Germany before arriving in the Netherlands today. We’ve visited large cities like Budapest, Vienna, Cologne, and tiny towns you surely have never heard of. Melk, Austria, anyone? How about Wertheim, Germany? Nope, I didn’t think so. The towns have varied in size, structure, and history, but what has been constant across the trip has been stunning scenery, sausage, beer, and Black Friday.
Nearly every city we visit has at least a few shops with Black Friday sale signs, alerting potential shoppers to the savings that could be had during this now-annual European tradition. Most shops offering Black Friday sales are clothing boutiques, but I’ve also seen signs in home goods stores, eyewear and optical shops, perfumeries, cosmetic stores, and other retailers. Some stores have a single, small sign in the window that looks like it was printed on a home printer, while other storefronts are cluttered with enormous floor-to-ceiling signs that are accompanied by matching sidewalk stands.
Last week, I took a day trip to Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Mozart and the setting of The Sound of Music (which, by the way, most Austrians have never heard of). My sister and I walked around eating enormous pretzels and watching Christmas markets being erected. We had lunch at the oldest restaurant in Europe (established in 803), and explored the Mozart museum located inside the eight-room apartment the child prodigy was raised in. I bought pink rock salt that had been extracted from a nearby salt mine and the chocolate-coated pistachio and marzipan “Mozart balls” sold on every street. Salzburg is a beautiful city, and because it’s been a very warm autumn, its trees are still full of bright yellow leaves. Its storefronts are also bizarrely full of Black Friday sale signs.
This week, my ship arrived in Bamberg, Germany, a Bavarian town of 80,000 with the highest density of breweries per capita globally (a claim I also heard in other German cities). Bamberg is best known for being the only place in the world that brews smoked beer, made by drying barley over an open fire, which creates a smoky taste. Some think it tastes like delicious BBQ; others find it reminiscent of an ashtray. Local breweries produce so many specialty malts that the town ships its malts to 150 countries (often to small craft breweries), which then find their way into 50,000 beers worldwide. The town is lined with pastel-colored, half-timbered homes, and they even have a Venetian-style canal where I literally saw a woman feeding swans. Bamberg basically looks like a postcard.
My guide in Bamberg, a lovely schoolteacher named Sam, led our group through the quaint cobblestone streets, past the cathedral founded in 1002 (yes, 1002!), and to a huge rose garden overlooking the entire city. I asked him about all the Black Friday signs I saw in local shops, and he said he’s seen the signs for about ten years and that such sales have become more numerous in recent years. I noticed that not only were there Black Friday signs, but many stores also advertised “Black Week” (apparently because a single Friday sale wasn’t enough). Sam wasn’t exactly sure when Black Week starts or ends (for instance, does it start on Black Friday itself or on the previous Sunday or Monday?), but according to signs I later saw in Wertheim and Koblenz, local shops were celebrating Black Week from November 20-27 (Monday through Monday). Sam didn’t strike me as someone who would rush to the stores as soon as they opened to spend his entire school-teacher salary on gadgets. And he’s not the only one.
Though the vast majority of Black Friday (or Black Week) signs I’d seen across the region enthusiastically supported and promoted consumer culture, I also saw a handful of #NoBlackFriday signs posted in the windows of small shops. These signs explained that, as small businesses, they cannot afford to offer the same steep discounts as large companies.
Some signs even plainly stated that the shop owners felt that this increasing obsession with Black Friday shopping endangers the success of independent shops and damages the city’s character. As such, they would not offer Black Friday discounts. While ultra-price-sensitive shoppers and hardcore capitalist consumers may simply take their business elsewhere, there is a growing movement to shun the Black Friday shopping craze.
Here in the United States, and also in Canada, the U.K., and elsewhere in Europe, Black Friday also serves as a global protest day against consumerism known as Buy Nothing Day. The idea is to forego mindless consumer culture and commit to spending the day after Thanksgiving doing anything but shopping. If you want to get something new without succumbing to capitalism, perhaps give, trade, or receive something through the Buy Nothing Project gift economy. I’ve been a proud celebrator of Buy Nothing Day for about a decade, so I was thrilled to see its spirit represented in Europe.
When I arrived in Wertheim, a small city of 24,000 residents spread across five villages, I asked my guide, Rudiger Schultz, about the local Black Friday habits, as I only saw two shops displaying sale signs. “Germany loves Black Friday, and it’s getting bigger every year!” he quickly responded. As for the lack of signage in town, Schultz explained that “most shops in town are small and independently owned, but the huge shopping mall outside of town is full of international stores, and they all offer Black Friday sales.” Schultz lamented that many people in his town (and elsewhere in Germany) also do a lot of Black Friday shopping online through Amazon (perhaps the main culprit in Black Friday’s overseas spread). “Everyone is buying from Amazon, and it’s getting bigger and bigger every year, but we should be supporting our local economies.”
Neither Schultz nor I had seen any #NoBlackFriday signs posted around Wertheim, but he was pleased to see the pictures I had taken of the signs in Bamberg.
American culture has spread far and wide across the globe, and it’s clear that Black Friday sales and shopping sprees are now a part of that spread. If you’re not going to join me in saying #NoBlackFriday on this Buy Nothing Day, then I hope that you might at least consider spending your money buying something worthwhile. Perhaps a discounted plane ticket to whisk you away to Europe next February after all the holiday madness has died down? For the time being at least.