Where did Black Friday come from?

By Gerri Detweiler/Credit.com

There was a time when there was no "Black Friday." On Thanksgiving, people overate, watched football on TV or played it in the yard, and then settled in to check the newspaper, thick and heavy with ads, to make a plan for the after-Thanksgiving sales. That's what they were called: After-Thanksgiving sales. Black Friday hadn't yet been given a name. But that was then, and this is now.

Black Friday has been described as the shopping day that retailers go "in the black" after being "in the red" almost all year. (For shoppers, this could easily be the day we go in the red.) And while some retailers really do depend mostly on the holiday season for sales, many more make money all year round.

There is a story that the name originated in the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1950s or '60s, as a description for the day of unmanageable traffic jams and crowds related to the after-Thanksgiving sales (as in, if you were trying to police the mayhem, it was a dark day indeed). The first use of it advertising a sale seems to have been in 1966 by a Philadelphia store that sold stamps to collectors.

The Friday after Thanksgiving used to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, perhaps because it was the traditional day of Christmas parades and such. Santa made his first appearance, and the stores opened, with big sales, too. Shoppers were ready. But now, discount warehouses bring out holiday merchandise in August. Still, Black Friday has a reputation of being the biggest shopping day of the year (it's actually normally the Saturday before Christmas). Naturally, it is also a day credit cards get a workout. (If that's your plan, be sure you know your card limits and keep your balances below 30 percent of your credit limits if you are trying to avoid potential damage to your credit scores. If you want to see how your holiday spending could be affecting your credit scores, you can see them for free on Credit.com.)

Stores have traditionally offered doorbuster specials and loss leaders to lure shoppers into stores, and they had begun to open earlier and earlier in the mornings. In 2012, many began opening at midnight. At times, violence and even deaths have been associated with Black Friday, with people being trampled or fighting over limited quantities of deeply discounted merchandise.

Last year, some stores opened as early as 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. This year, the stores that are waiting until Friday for their Black Friday sales are making the news as holdouts that insist on keeping Thursday as a holiday. But others are opening as early as 5 p.m. on Thursday. It's hard to know whether the extra days and hours will result in more sales or simply cause the sales to be spread out over more days. But as the biggest shopping day of the year threatens to further encroach on Thanksgiving, the day before Black Friday has been referred to by some as Gray Thursday, Black Thursday or Brown Thursday. To our ears, Thanksgiving sounds a whole lot better.

This year, people will shop on Thanksgiving, both online and at some retail stores. Many stores have already begun offering what they call their "Black Friday" deals. In other cases, the deals have been "leaked" to deal websites. It's possible to know what the doorbuster sales will be weeks before Thanksgiving.

Perhaps this Black Friday people will sleep in instead of waking in the dark to stand outside in the cold waiting for stores to open and let the lucky shoppers who were first in line buy the coveted loss leaders for a ridiculously low price. Maybe they will instead shop with lists and a budget. Or stay home and shop online.

But is it really Black Friday if you're not out shopping and spending, not part of the monster traffic or jockeying for parking spots at the mall? Maybe if it keeps your personal finance from going in the red, it is.