Do 8 p.m. store openings mean Thanksgiving's dead?

In the span of a single voice mail, the woman's voice clears every emotional stage. She starts with disbelief and anger and moves to desperation and sadness before reaching some sort of grudging acceptance.

“Please write an obituary because I think this death needs to be acknowledged,” Pam Lawrence pleads as she provides all the details of the demise. Too emotionally attached to write a fitting tribute, I don't know how to write this obituary.

Her most-beloved holiday died for Lawrence when major suburban retailers told employees that the Black Friday shopping madness will begin at 8 o'clock on Thanksgiving night.

“It is the death of Thanksgiving,” says Lawrence, a 53-year-old Arlington Heights woman who works as a counter manager at a suburban department store. “It broke my heart, even though I knew it was coming.” A friend at rival Macy's tipped her off.

Opened as a dry goods store in 1858 and sponsor of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade since 1924, Macy's sent out a news release Monday noting that most of its stores will break tradition by opening their doors at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving so that shoppers can buy doorbuster specials such as $19.99 Rampage Boots or $39.99 Charter Club Cashmere Crewnecks. Protests and a petition drive against stores that opened last year on Thanksgiving apparently can't stem the tide.

A couple of decades ago, when Lawrence was working at Marshall Field's, Thanksgiving was a hale and hearty holiday dedicated to family, food and tradition. Stores were closed from Wednesday evening until the usual opening time on Friday so that society could celebrate the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

But like some aggressive virus, shopping kept eating away at Thanksgiving. Last Thanksgiving, Walmart, Target, Sears and Toys R Us opened at 8 p.m. throughout the suburbs, and shoppers filled the aisles. With Macy's, Carson Pirie Scott and others apparently jumping on board this year, we can expect more and more stores intruding earlier and earlier.

“At one point we opened at 6 in the morning on Black Friday. And then it got moved to 4 in the morning and then it got moved to midnight and now it's 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving,” Lawrence says. “We have massacred Thanksgiving. It is now the shopping day.”

Married with two daughters, Lawrence has hosted many Thanksgiving feasts for about two dozen loved ones in her family's ranch home during the past two decades. Guests generally include her family, her mom, her two brothers and two sisters and their families, “the in-laws and the outlaws,” and maybe even “an uncle from Milwaukee.”

“I start on Tuesday night. I do everything from scratch,” she says. “The silly orange Jell-O has to be there. There are some creamed peas and potatoes that have to show up.”

The whole family partakes in the Wednesday night ritual of setting the table. They use the handed-down silver and flatware, crystal and all 21 Wedgewood china place settings that Lawrence has accumulated through the years. With no obligation to give gifts or send cards, “everyone relishes in the simplicity of Thanksgiving,” says Lawrence, who makes her job a bit easier some years by going from roasting one 22-pound bird to cooking two smaller turkeys.

The dinner also includes memories of loved ones who've died, updates on the lives of people at the table and those who couldn't attend, and lots of laughter. After dinner, there might be an impromptu touch football game, maybe a game of charades, some stories from Grandma and always plenty of the wine that goes well with great conversations. Guests can't get all of that done before Lawrence needs to leave for her job this Thanksgiving.

“What do I say? 'Hey, everybody. Come over for hamburgers and hot dogs about 2 because I have to be at work by 7,'” she says.

Black Friday bled over, making Thursday a little darker. Lawrence says she always figured Christmas, which has been eroding for decades, would be the first holiday to officially die from commercialism and consumer excess. But most places remain closed on Christmas so retail workers can spend the day with loved ones, or at least catch up on sleep after weeks of working six-day shifts and long hours.

Lawrence understands the reasoning. Times are tough. She needs her job. Her employer needs to make money. This newspaper needs the Black Friday advertising. We all need to make money. It's hard to blame retailers who are just trying to hang on, when shoppers turned out in record numbers last year, Lawrence acknowledges. More than 35 million Americans shopped last Thanksgiving, according to the National Retail Federation.

“I do think Thanksgiving Day is going to be a shopping day from now on because retailers are crazy. And retailers are crazy because they are trying to capture sales,” explains John Melaniphy Sr., principal and retail analyst with Melaniphy & Associates in Chicago. “Retailers are trying to take advantage of when customers are available to spend money.”

Customers not only are available on Thanksgiving, but they also are willing to trample their neighbors if the price is right. Lawrence doesn't understand why the wonderful, traditional Thanksgiving has to be the victim.

“I sell stuff. That's what I do,” Lawrence says. “But there is nothing that Carson's or Macy's or Best Buy or any other place sells that you have to get on Thanksgiving.”

This year, plenty of retail workers will show up to work Thanksgiving night and well into the next day.

“We killed it. We killed Thanksgiving,” Lawrence says. “It's gone.”

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