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Thanksgiving & Holiday Shopping — Two American Traditions

Sorry I missed our date last week.  I was busy doing Thanksgiving, and rolling my eyes at news stories about our annual shopping frenzy.  I remember when Thanksgiving was about eating and watching football.  Today the topic is shopping.

How did Black Friday become a national event?  Why do we put ourselves through this annual ritual?  We can shop any day, any time.  This is America, after all – it is our sacred right to shop 24/7.  So, what makes Black Friday special?  Why do we crawl out of bed at 4:00 a. m. so we can be in line for a door-buster special?  Because it sort of feels like a tail gate party?

Nah!  It’s because we give gifts in December.  You knew that!  A gift at any other time is not as special – we can’t compare our stack of lovely presents with the stacks enjoyed by other people.  When I was a child, my mother said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  No child and very few adults actually believe that.  So, how did our present gifting frenzy begin?

Once upon a time, some people celebrated Christmas by giving gifts.  Depending on one’s social standing, the gift could be a beautiful emerald ring, a bag of gold, or an orange.  Orange?  Yeah.  Oranges were rare and wondrous things.  Children might receive a small toy made out of wood, or a doll lovingly assembled.

Fast forward a few hundred years.  People began to shop at department stores – stores so large children and even grown-ups got lost.  Department store owners like Mr. Bergdorf and Mr. Goodman loved Christmas, and told people that if they valued their family and friends, they would buy them presents, and wrap them in bright paper.  They told parents that Santa Claus was real, and if they loved their children, they would buy them so many presents the children would have tantrums of joy before collapsing with exhaustion.

Holiday shopping started after a quaint celebration called Thanksgiving.  Americans said their prayers on Thursday.  The next day they hit the stores.  Americans shopped and shopped and shopped.  They bought presents for everyone – the milkman, the hairdresser, the neighbors, their children’s classmates.  Storeowners rubbed their hands in glee.  It was the magical time of year when they made pots of money.

Alas, all was not well in Retail Land, because Thanksgiving was on the last Thursday in November.  In 1939, this left only 24 days before Christmas.  Compassionate businessmen begged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday.  Calendar makers were aghast!  They had already printed calendars for the next two years.  Federal and state celebrations conflicted.  Retailers lobbied.  Finally, on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law making Thanksgiving the fourth Saturday of November. (Note: This was after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  You might think Congress had more important issues to consider.)

Starting today, you have 24 shopping days left before Christmas.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.

One thoughts on “Thanksgiving & Holiday Shopping — Two American Traditions”

  1. I was thinking about Congress a lot this week because of research. I wonder what their mind set was like in Dec. of 41. They say (among the Chaplin Corps at least) that there are no atheists in fox holes. I wonder if after hearing the news of Hawaii’s waterfronts destroyed and the loss of life that perhaps it was easy to pass a bill about Thanksgiving for Congress. I think of my mom. They were going to the beach with friends that morning. After they picked up the last person, they drove out about a block when a bomb leveled that house. At least they got away with their lives. My uncle was trapped three days in the wreckage at Pearl. He was so afraid that they wouldn’t find him in the next conflict that he tattooed his social security number on his leg. War does strange things to people.


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