“Black Friday” has become a peculiar American institution. Retailers have promoted the day after Thanksgiving as the opening of the holiday shopping season, counting on this day to roll in a good percentage of their yearly sales — to get them out of the “red” of loss and put them in the “black” of profit.

Photos of people pushing through doors into stores opening at 4 a.m. have become the mainstay for that day’s news.

This shopping day frenzy has been called “a full-throated celebration of capitalism” by The New York Times, which should know celebrations of capitalism when it sees them.

Yet the Times says this year’s Black Friday was “more desperation than celebration.” Most shoppers — U.S. working people — are in a cash-tight situation. With rising mortgage rates, foreclosures and unemployment, soaring gas and heating oil prices and stagnant or declining wages, holiday spending is going to be more limited this year.

If it was “more desperation than celebration” this past week, what does this mean for capitalism?

The mortgage and credit crisis is shaking capitalism’s markets worldwide to the core. Banks are trying to shore up their capital. Citigroup, Inc., the biggest U.S. bank, agreed to sell as much as 4.9 percent of the company to the government of Abu Dhabi for $7.5 billion.

Billions of dollars are being “written down” as financial institutions that bundled subprime and other loans realize the profits they anticipated will never come to pass.

The super-wealthy and corporate elites who live on an economic Mount Olympus are not immune to the shifts in capitalism’s fault lines. But most of the boulders dislodged by the economy’s quakes are landing on the heads of us mere mortals down below.

What can we, the ordinary folk, do to protect ourselves from the boulders? Organize, build unity of all people and struggle together.

But what can we cash-strapped mortals do for the holidays? Recycle, reuse and reduce. Go to secondhand stores. Make soup. Donate babysitting time. Knit a scarf. Host a potluck. It’s good for the Earth, pocketbook and soul.