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It's Not Christmas Yet

What ever happened to Thanksgiving decorations in stores? I'm sure I remember them from my childhood--giant pictures of turkeys and horns of plenty. Not sure I have a clear memory of Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers, though I think so. Definitely cascades of fruit and such, surrounded by leaves. Now the extra gravy, stuffing, and turkey sneak into the stores without any fanfare in the way of additional decorations. "Fall" decorations, which one still sometimes sees, don't count. Pumpkins and leaves (without horns of plenty), and scare crows are for October. We used to have distinctive Thanksgiving decorations for November. Where did they go?

Some options. These are not mutually exclusive or jointly exhaustive. Add yours or mix and match:

1) Stores just don't decorate much anymore, so it isn't because the stores are moving straight from Halloween to Christmas. It's just that they simply change their wares rather than putting up non-saleable decorations.

2) Stores don't decorate much anymore, but they used to sell Thanksgiving decorations for people's home interiors--placemats, napkins, knick-knacks, window pictures. And now those have been replaced by a move directly to selling decorations for Christmas, because people aren't interested in buying Thanksgiving decorations as much as they used to be for their homes. This gives rise to the impression of moving immediately from Halloween to Christmas in store decor.

3) Stores still decorate for some holidays but have slowly fallen out of the habit of decorating for Thanksgiving because

3a) it's impossible to get rid of the religious element in Thanksgiving, so they feel squeamish about it, worried that someone will be offended, and/or

3b) the Indian, er, Native American element in Thanksgiving is considered a touchy subject, and they're worried that someone will complain about something having to do with insensitivity to Indians.

For my part, I think what is true is that stores decorate less than they used to, but that Thanksgiving is a big enough holiday in America (lots of people love to celebrate the food part even if they don't believe in Anyone to give thanks to) that we would see some store decorations for it if it weren't for some of the considerations in 3, my bet being more heavily on 3a.

What do readers think?

Comments (27)

Unless we have a grocery store where's the possibility for any return on the cost of decorating. Everyone is geared up for Black Friday anyway.

"For my part, I think what is true is that stores decorate less than they used to,"

Bottom line, bottom line.

Looks like Al is mostly going for #1.

The thing is, though, Al, I think you'll have to admit that stores decorate for _some_ holidays. (And several decades ago they apparently thought it good for the bottom line to decorate for several holidays.) If you admit that they do, then why not Thanksgiving? Especially in grocery stores, which do a brisk business in Thanksgiving-specific food during these couple of weeks.

I was appalled that my local Home Depot and Lowes BOTH started putting up the Christmas displays well before Halloween. One was in early October, the other in September!!! I can't believe that this was a well-thought-out program to increase profits. I think it was sheer laziness combined with moral and cultural obtuseness.

I don't think my community gives a farthing about the Indian touchiness regarding Thanksgiving, so I doubt that is it around here.

It might be the religious connection, but there are enough stores that put up Christmas decorations that are tinged with religious themes that I would be cautious about concluding that this is the major reason. It is sufficient, I think, for the Thanksgiving spirit that one "be thankful", and that would fit with most New Age nonsense and other pantheist notions, as well as an "I'm spiritual but I'm not religious" sentiment.

I would think it would be _good_ for their bottom line to recognize Thanksgiving overtly. Lots of people celebrate it, even (as you say, Tony) non-Christians. One of the best Thanksgiving meals I ever had was a kosher smoked turkey with a Jewish family in Nashville, TN, many years ago.

So it's a mystery to me why it has so largely disappeared. The grocery stores _have_ to stock the extra food, even mushroom soup and green beans for the green bean casserole (and canned cranberry sauce, etc., etc.). But that's about the only recognition it gets.

Nordstrom announced they won't put up Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving. I doubt this is a trend, but it's worth noting.

That's interesting. Good acknowledgement at least that Thanksgiving exists. Do they have any Thanksgiving decs. up in the meanwhile?

Fact is, Thanksgiving is not a "sellable" holiday. Other than food and a few decorations, what do people really spend money on for Thanksgiving? Halloween, on the other hand, rakes it in from candy, costumes, and decorations and we all know about Christmas.

So, this wouldn't have anything to do with the commercialization of Christmas would it? The moving back of the "holiday season" ever further in order to generate more sales over a longer period of time, the same reason that Halloween stuff now starts to appear around Labor Day, and Valentines crap shows up right after New Year's? Perfect example of consumerism running roughshod over tradition, as it is wont to do

But it can't be that -- we all know consumerism is a slippery, vague abstract sort of thing that's hard to pin down, if it even exists at all.

I was glad to hear about Nordstrom's last year. Good on them. I'd happily support them if I could afford to shop there...

I also remember specifically Thanksgiving, as opposed to fall, decorations.

I think it's mostly just as the picture suggests: Christmas ("the holidays") took over Thanksgiving.

I'm very doubtful about your reason 3. First of all, for 3a, almost all secular and non-Christian Americans like Thanksgiving. There is no squeamishness about the religious aspect, except among a few professional atheists.

For 3b, it's easy to have plenty of "positive" images of Indians. Pilgrims and Indians smiling in harmony and equality, wise Indians sharing their knowledge with the clueless Pilgrims, etc.

Here's another hypothesis you didn't consider. Most Thanksgiving purchases are food, and people buy the food at their favorite food store, the store they shop at year 'round. There's not much competition. Christmas ("holiday") shopping is for presents, though, and people don't have a single "present store" where they buy all their presents. Therefore, more competition; therefore, more decoration. But I still think this is less important than the simple, obvious explanation: Christmas ("holidays") expansionism and aggression.

By the way, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday as a kid. And it didn't even involve presents, so that's saying a lot.

Christmas ("holidays") expansionism and aggression.

I don't see what that gets the food stores. I think they'd make more by playing up Thanksgiving at least for a couple of weeks.

But I'm developing a new theory: #4: Christmas creep was seen as beneficial to profits in the non-food stores, to get people to start buying (presents, etc.) as early as possible, and the food stores simply followed suit unthinkingly.

No specific Thanksgiving decorations, but Nordstrom diesn't sell housewares, so there's not really a market. The fancy cookware stores have large Thanksgiving displays.

I vote for the "unthinking" part. I don't think they have a clue, and unthinkingly assume that extending the Christmas buying season is better than first having a Thanksgiving season followed by a Christmas season. For a few stores it will work, but for many all it will do is spread out the same purchases over 6 weeks instead of 4. I don't buy it :-).

"I don't think they have a clue, and unthinkingly assume that extending the Christmas buying season is better than first having a Thanksgiving season followed by a Christmas season."

Thing is, T-giving is not a holiday associated with a particular sort of spending in its lead-up. Everyone thinks of the day after as the beginning of the Xmas shopping season. To put it bluntly, Thanksgiving qua Thanksgiving doesn't sell, so retailers in effect ignore it. Al's right -- it's a bottom line thing.

"For a few stores it will work, but for many all it will do is spread out the same purchases over 6 weeks instead of 4."

For consumers with a set holiday budget this is true, but I'm willing to bet that folks who have greater disposable income spend more on Xmas precisely because the pre-holiday shopping season is longer, esp. those people who like to get their shopping done early. A fair amount of holiday buying is impulse buying, and it stands to reason that if the time period allotted to stimulate the impulse is longer you'll have more impulse purchases.

Nordstrom appears to agree with Tony. I was reading up on Nordstrom's reasoning last evening--they've been self-consciously doing this for umpty years now, and there are stories all over Google from year after year on why. In one of them, one of the representatives said something to the effect that if you start the Christmas buying season too early everybody is just exhausted by the end of it, so they're saving up the energy and enthusiasm.

In any event, I believe that if we want to talk about stimulating buying, stimulating _food_ buying for Thanksgiving would be profitable for the food stores. In fact, when I asked the manager at my local grocery store (which I love--everybody knows me) the other day, "Didn't there used to be Thanksgiving decorations?" he said, "Yeah, the guy from the stuffing company used to give us a big turkey to put up every year." See? And one would think displays with pictures of the cranberry sauce with the turkey, served Norman Rockwell style, would help sell cranberry sauce. Same with candied yams, pumpkin pie, etc., etc., etc. I think this is how the grocery stores and the merchants providing their products used to think. It still seems to me sound market reasoning, so I'm trying to conjecture why it's gone out of fashion.

Thanksgiving as a selling season has gone out of fashion because Thanksgiving as a civic-and-Christian holy day is inappropriate for us to celebrate. We are a secular, inclusive nation that celebrates diversity. We cannot continue to privilege Puritans because of the sacred Wall of Separation. And besides, it is little more than the Anglo version of Oppressed Native Peoples Day, which we come together as a diverse nation to celebrate every October 12th. Naturally, for those of us from non-diverse backgrounds of England or Europe, such days are cause for painful reflection, racial guilt and personal remorse. It hardly seems fitting to garnish our thoughts with cranberry sauce when we should be eating from a cornucopia of ashes.

You can do the same thing with every civic and Christian holiday that still makes some sort of appearance on our secular calendars. The important part of Lent is not Chocolate Bunnny Sunday but the sex-n-drugs orgy that goes by Mardi Gras, or just Carnaval here in Austin. George Washington's birthday is now a Sales Event for car dealers, who (not coincidentally?) fly the largest American flags in most places. All Hallows Eve is now a celebration in honor of Satan Lite. Thanksgiving is really only a vestigial vigil feast for Black Friday, itself supplanting the Feast of Christ the King in the secular Advent that culminates in Happy Materialism Holidays.


The Elephant

David's post =

David, I don't think anyone cares about Pilgrims and Puritans enough to buy (or not buy) something based on them, but people sure care about putting on a big, enormous spread for Lions vs Packers day celebration. I am positive that it is possible to sell something based on targeting that market. If materialism is ALL that is left of holidays, then cutting Thanksgiving off from the list is irrational.

I honestly don't think it's 3a, and I'm the kind of person who would feel squeamish about religious elements. But, honestly, if you can decorate for Christmas without a religious element--if you can de-emphasize religion in a holiday that historically celebrated the birth of Christ--then you could easily find ways to get the religion out of Thanksgiving. Most atheists I know celebrate Thanksgiving (most atheists I know celebrate Christmas, too, along with about a quarter of the Jews I've known.)

I agree with those who have pointed to economics. I think the size of the hoopla that our culture sees with regard to a holiday directly correlates to frivolous or unnecessary spending. Christmas is the gold standard, because we are encouraged to buy, buy, buy. Every category of products is advertised and sold to accompany the Christmas holiday--from clothing, to toys, to household goods, to sex enhancement devices. Halloween is the biggest holiday of the year for the candy industry and, obviously, for the costume industry. Valentine's Day sells cards, candy, and dining out.

Contrast those holidays with things like Veteran's Day, Memorial Day, or Groundhog Day. Whether somber or silly, those holidays don't contribute to the sales of consumer goods and services in a meaningful way, and we don't see 1% of the decorations for those days that we do for a holiday like Christmas.

Thanksgiving is somewhere in the middle. The only category of consumer goods associated with the Thanksgiving holiday is groceries, because the most common Thanksgiving tradition is getting together with family and eating a big meal.

However, it's possible that the Thanksgiving meal doesn't contribute to a significant increase in spending, because of several factors:
a) eating at home his typically cheaper than eating out
b) many families feed more than the usual number of people at the Thanksgiving meal, so the increased costs of Thanksgiving foods is offset by the number of people being fed
c) The types of foods prepared for Thanksgiving tend to last so that they can be eaten over the course of several meals. If you spend four times as much on your Thanksgiving dinner, but the meal provides you with four meals worth of leftovers, then you haven't really increased your spending. You might actually save money.

Put another way, the holidays that our culture emphasize usually have a lot to do with waste. You give gifts because it is expected, without regard to whether they are needed. You wear a costume once. You send cards that will be thrown away. Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Veterans Day...none of these encourages waste.

I'm not sure that I think this is a bad thing. I think it may be a really positive thing to have a major holiday where the focus is on family and friends, and not on products.

I was with you here, Phil, up to the bit about waste. Actually, I don't think the holidays are necessarily more "intentionally" wasteful. It's just that conspicuous consumption is always wasteful, and that at these particular times our consumption is even more conspicuous than usual.

4) Aside from selling more low to moderate priced groceries, Thanksgiving is not a retail-friendly day. Halloween is like a micro-Christmas in its ability to push candy, decorations, costumes and anything scary (movies, books, video games, etc.)

Christmas and Halloween are the holidays people spend the most money on. I've seen a little Thanksgiving decor in the stores, but you are right. They tend to skip straight from Halloween to Christmas, probably because they make the most money from them.

Lydia, Halloween has become a big retail event over the years and the Christmas shopping season begins on the day following Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving just got squeezed out except for the food. From the above, it seems that most folks seem to agree that it's a bottom line decision.

Again, I just don't think that the food stores themselves make the most money by skipping Thanksgiving. It gives me, at least, a strange feeling to see the _food_ there for Thanksgiving but no other recognition of the season. The store knows that it needs to stock in larger quantities of certain food items, but if you weren't "in the know" you'd have no idea _why_.

and the Christmas shopping season begins on the day following Thanksgiving.

But Al, don't the stores start putting up Christmas decorations and sale displays well before Thanksgiving? (IN my example, well before Halloween.) Doesn't this imply that the Christmas shopping season is conceived (by those doing the marketing) as starting, at the very latest, the day after Halloween?

I can't see how a "shopping season" that runs 8 weeks really works. Psychologically, to me that's not a shopping season, that's an eternity. I can't imagine that anyone who shops early in the season AND late in the season, and buys a lot, isn't just replacing some of their disposable income purchases that would have been spent on non-Christmas items for theoretically Christmas items. But they are figured as "Christmas" items only because they are purchased in the _enlarged_ window. It's just a substitution, not an increase in total expenditures. So what's the point?

The commonest thread through your points is political correctness. Folks have been beaten into near submission over the slightest hint of "offense". The standard is no longer "if" there is an actual offense, it is whether anyone simply says they are offended. In this way, over 20 some years, retailers in particular are gun shy.
Having worked in retail, stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot often get a one time massive shipment from China within a short time frame that determines when exactly the stuff appears. And generally, the non China stuff begins to accumulate during summer, reaching a crescendo at black (non-white) Friday. Make no mistake, black (differentiated colored) Friday is the benchmark of the "season".
Regarding thanksgiving, besides the pc pilgrims are horrible white colonial oppressors and thanks to the evil Columbus they came effect of 20 years, retails, particularly food stores have responded tot he fast food aspect of our culture by accentuating full meal packages, turkey and all. Although there is no retail constitution that says so, the "season" starts the moment you see the first "holiday" music offer on late night TV.

By the way: I finally found some Thanksgiving napkins at my local grocery store. Sort of. They contain all the traditional Thanksgiving imagery--horns of plenty and turkeys. But they say..."Harvest." Hmmm. I saw a Thanksgiving decoration on a doorstep the other day. It was an inscribed pumpkin. It said, "Happy Harvest." Now this really _is_ a secularizing change. Apparently someone decided that if we're "supposed" to say "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" some similar alchemy must be worked on Thanksgiving, and the term they came up with was "harvest."

This gives me the creeps, frankly. There's something so systematic about it. No, I'm not saying it's being decided at some central location. In a way it's worse than a conspiracy. It's an unspoken agreement that comes from some deep, though recently created, well of cultural taboos on which advertisers draw. We "should" or "are supposed to" replace all tacitly religious terms with non-religious references to, say, the seasons rather than to holy days. Brrr.

Funny image, but saying that stores don't carry Christmas stuff based on the religious argument is very far fetched.

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