At its most basic level, the holiday of Thanksgiving is about being grateful and eating a special meal. The menu generally includes a roast turkey, or tofu turkey. Pumpkin pie is a staple dessert choice, but far from the only one. The rest of the menu includes family favorites.
Once the meal is over, thoughts turn to other Thanksgiving weekend traditions: shopping and football. Both revolve around this festive holiday.
American football got its start in the late 19th century. In 1876 college football teams at Yale and Princeton began an annual game, and played on Thanksgiving since most people had a day off from work. What could be more pleasant that a sumptuous feast followed by an open air activity?
But the tradition we have today started with the Detroit Lions. In 1934, team owner George A. Richards wasn’t getting fans into the stadium. His largest crowd was only 15,000. However, Mr. Richards also owned a large radio station, and was able to convince NBC to broadcast the game. The then undefeated Chicago Bears came to play. The Lions sold out their 26,000 seat stadium, and a tradition was born.
In 1966 the Dallas Cowboys began playing on Thanksgiving as a way to gain publicity, and now the NFL sponsors three games on Thanksgiving. This year the Chicago Bears will again meet the Detroit Lions; the Buffalo Bills will match up against the Dallas Cowboys, and the New Orleans Saints will go against the Atlanta Falcons.
Too much football? Not to worry.
Thanksgiving weekend shopping is a time-honored tradition. Retailers once held off on their Christmas shopping push until after Thanksgiving. But, Thanksgiving was a moveable feast that informally occurred sometime in November, most often the last Thursday. If that Thursday coincided with the last day of November, the shopping season was a short one.
In 1939, Retail Dry Goods Association appealed to President Roosevelt to fix Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday, in order to guarantee at least four weeks of shopping. The President complied with a proclamation. Congress further fixed the date in 1941.
But wait. Retailers had another tradition up their marketing sleeves — Thanksgiving Day Parades. The famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade started in 1924 and utilized Macy’s employees. There were floats, live animals from the Central Park Zoo, and Santa in his sleigh. With attendance at 250,000, Macy’s knew it was an excellent marketing ploy and continued the tradition. In 1927 Macy’s introduced air-filled balloons to replace the live animals.
After World War II, American shoppers embraced what became known as Black Friday, a name that initially reflected traffic congestion in Philadelphia in the early 1950s. The Army-Navy Football game took place the Saturday after Thanksgiving, just as suburban shoppers, tourists, and shoplifters flooded the city. It was a “black” day for Philadelphia police.
Since 2005 Black Friday has been the businest shopping day of the year. Over time, retailers began opening their doors earlier and earlier. Once it was 6:00 a.m. on Friday morning, then 5:00 or 4:00. By 2011 stores opened at midnight. Then it was Thanksgiving Day itself. Publicized “door busters” led to long lines people waiting to get into the store first. Some people enjoy standing in line or “camping” on the pavement while waiting for the store to open. Others really want the enormous television, new computer, or other digital device enough to put up with the inconvenience. [Full disclosure: I participated once, but only once, to buy a desktop computer. The prize didn’t compensate for standing outside for four hours. Or was it six?]
For those who prefer to shop from the comfort of their computer screens, the National Retail Federation launched Cyber Monday in 2005.
Of course, now Black Friday shopping begins the day after Halloween. And if you want to get an extreme head start, there’s Amazon Prime Day in July.
If you decide to hit the mall or big box store, don’t forget to fortify yourself with holiday food. And with three football games on offer, you should be able to complete all three traditional Thanksgiving activities.
Whatever you do, have a Happy Thanksgiving.
A Very Large Turkey, 1900.
Thanksgiving Football Greetings, 1900.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 2008 by tweber1
Greeting Card for Odd Fellows and Rebekas by Louieblakesarmiento
Sarah Pruitt. “What’s the Real History of Black Friday?” History. Nov. 20, 2018.
Ethan Trex.” A Brief History of Black Friday.” Mental Floss. Nov. 23, 2018.
Ethan Trex. “Why do Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?” Mental Floss. Nov. 18, 2018.
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.