In the early part of the 20th century, American retailers were up against a unique challenge. Falling at the end of November, Thanksgiving, with it’s football rivalries, quiet family gatherings, and emphasis on gratitude rather than wanting was antithetical to the whole commercial ideal. Yet such a major holiday, and one so thoroughly American, could hardly be bumped aside. The solution was to Christmas-ize Thanksgiving, and make it the official start to the shopping season.
In 1920, Gimbel’s department store in New York organized the first Thanksgiving parade, the highlight of which was a fireman hired to dress as Santa Claus. Other stores around the nation quickly followed up on this idea themselves. In Detroit, Hudson’s started the Santa’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924, and that same year, back in New York, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade got it’s start. With Santa arriving in the very last float, Christmas – and the shopping season – was officially underway. Since many people had the next day off, store owners made the Friday after Thanksgiving a sort of national shopping day, with special sales, special hours, and special attractions to lure in customers. In most American cities, the Friday after Thanksgiving became the day when downtown shopping districts turned on their holiday lights and stores unveiled their Christmas windows.
So important did the intense, month-long burst of Christmas related shopping become to the national economic well-being, that, in 1939, when Thanksgiving fell on the last day of a five-Thursdayed November, Federated Department Stores protested the shortened shopping season. President Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week, thus adding six days to the shopping season. In 1941, Congress passed a bill officially moving Thanksgiving from the “last Thursday” of November to the “fourth Thursday”, ensuring that there would always be a maximum number of shopping days.