The spread of Black Friday shopping into Thursday is less an assault on our hallowed Thanksgiving Day traditions than a long-standing side dish, like sweet potatoes or cranberry sauce, edging ever closer to the turkey.
It's not as though the retail industry is telling the nation it should celebrate a whole week earlier in order to extend the holiday shopping season.
That happened in 1939.
Merchants that year — in a power play that makes today's jockeying by stores to open sooner look timid — prevailed upon President Franklin Roosevelt to bump Thanksgiving up a week to Nov. 23 from Nov. 30.
Which the president announced in August, giving the nation less than four months to rearrange its holiday plans. Or not.
So while it's tempting to imagine Thanksgivings past in the pristine iconography of a Norman Rockwell tableau, the holiday even then was well-established as a curtain-raiser for Christmas shopping.
Family dinner may be threatened this year by the ever-bolder encroachment of deep-discount sales onto Thanksgiving Day, not to mention a buffet of TV sports. But history shows that commerce is as entwined with Thanksgiving as pumpkin pie.
Today we observe the holiday every year on the fourth Thursday in November, even when there are five Thursdays on the calendar. It was Roosevelt's effort to boost retail sales that unpinned it from the final week of the month, where it had been anchored each year since Abraham Lincoln made it an annual national event 150 years ago.
It took just 30 Thanksgivings after Lincoln's designation, according to author Godfrey Hodgson, for the New York Herald to lament the occasion was "no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given" but rather "a holiday granted by the state and the nation to see a game of football."
Macy's department store, seeking to hype its Christmas sales, added its annual Thanksgiving Day parade 31 years after that in 1924.
Whatever havoc one imagines Roosevelt's abrupt 1939 decision to move the date would cause today, it was even more disruptive then because Thanksgiving wasn't yet a statutory holiday. It was created each year by proclamation of the president and state governors, and there was no consensus among the states on the change.
Some went along with Roosevelt's early date. Others held fast to tradition. Texas was one of the rare states to choose both dates, its Democratic governor bound to support the president but not at all interested in pulling the holiday out from under college football fans and the big University of Texas game with top-ranked Texas A&M on the books for the 30th.
Travel plans made well in advance were scrambled. Railroads, airlines and bus companies were unsure when or if the big Thanksgiving rush was going to come. A student at New York's Pratt Institute addressed the president as "Your Excellency" in a note to complain his Thanksgiving switch meant missing her family's Thanksgiving get-together in Connecticut.
It was precisely the kind of chaos and confusion Roosevelt had sought to avoid when he resisted a similar call for change from big store-owners when Thanksgiving landed on the 30th and 29th in his first two years in the White House.
And, to be fair, retailers weren't the only industry looking for help as the nation struggled to rebound from the Great Depression. The less said the better about a wisely ignored 1935 proposal to help the fishing industry by moving Thanksgiving to a Tuesday so leftover turkey wouldn't discourage seafood sales the following day.
But in 1939, Lew Hahn, whose trade group repped the owners of more than 5,700 dry-goods and department stores, managed to enlist the help of Harry Hopkins, then-Roosevelt's secretary of commerce. Consumers tended to wait to buy their gifts until after Thanksgiving, and merchants fretted that a Nov. 30 Turkey Day left too little time till Christmas.
Hahn, a staunch Republican who reportedly kept a picture of Herbert Hoover in his office, at the time interpreted the Roosevelt administration's acquiescence as a signal the White House was willing to play ball with business.
"It fits in very well with (Hopkins') belief and that of the president's that business strength and prosperity was one wheel of recovery," said June Hopkins, the Roosevelt adviser's granddaughter and biographer as well as a history professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga. "It was really important for business to recover as well as for people. … Hopkins would have been very amenable to the suggestion of, yeah, let's help retailers."
But not all retailers saw it as help. A men's shop owner in Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, wrote the president to warn that smaller businesses would get hurt by the longer selling season.
Ordinary citizens were none too thrilled, either. A Gallup poll found 62 percent disapproved of the change. A West Virginia man wrote the president to suggest other calendar changes, such as having Sundays changed to Wednesday and making Mondays Christmas.