Personal Finance: Thanksgiving in America means business

photo Chris Hopkins

With the demise of the traditional Turkey Day interruption in the extended holiday shopping season, many of us lament the promotional intrusion into our family gatherings. But the truth is that the latest campaign by retailers to lure us into their stores on Thanksgiving is a natural extension of our uniquely American commercial identity.

The feast we celebrate this week traces its origin to 1621 in the colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Two distinctly different cultures brought their traditional harvest festivals together for a three-day blast celebrating the bounty of crop and game in the New World. Like any modern carnival, the celebration featured sporting events including shooting contests with the bow and the gun, as well as a ball game somewhat similar to cricket. No doubt soon thereafter, some enterprising soul pondered the idea of charging admission.

While the observance of a day of national thanksgiving waxed and waned through the early 19th century, it gained permanence in 1863. Sarah J. Hale, editor of a popular ladies' magazine, prevailed upon President Lincoln to declare the last Thursday in November "Thanksgiving Day." Lincoln recognized the value in leveraging a universally recognized American celebration to help reunite the country once the Civil War ended.

Just 11 years after the end of the war, in 1876, the third annual intercollegiate championship football game was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day. Henceforth, football became an indispensable aspect of the national festival. The first Thanksgiving Day pro contest was played in 1920, and by 1936 NBC radio broadcast the holiday match up between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. Complete with commercials, of course.

Where there is advertising, retailing cannot be far behind. In 1924, Macy's instituted its trademark parade as a publicity effort to get shoppers in the mood for Christmas. Helium balloons followed in 1927, which were originally released at the end of the route with store credits attached for anyone retrieving them. From the very first parade, Santa Claus arrived at Herald Square to declare the shopping season open.

Lest we think there is anything new under the sun, Franklin Roosevelt sparked a firestorm in 1939 by changing the date of that year's celebration. In an effort to stimulate economic activity and stoke retail sales, Roosevelt acceded to a request from the Retail Dry Goods Association to move Thanksgiving Day up one week earlier. Appalled at the naked commercialization, Congress passed legislation in 1941 establishing a national holiday on the fourth Thursday of November.

And so it goes. The busiest day of the year for air travel is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the busiest travel day for all modes is Thanksgiving Day itself. Airlines, gas stations, hotels and restaurants all depend upon holiday travel. Nearly 30 percent of the turkeys consumed in the United States are enjoyed at the Thanksgiving table, thanks in part to the efforts of the National Turkey Federation (of course there is a trade group for turkey farmers; it is eminently American). Each year the Federation gives two live turkeys to the President, who summarily and publicly pardons them.

Calvin Coolidge famously remarked that the "the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world."

Business is ingrained in our identity and explains in part why we have prospered as a nation. Perhaps it is fitting that our national day of thanksgiving incorporates a dose of commercial appeal.

Best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving.

Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA, is vice president of Barnett & Co. Investment Counsel. Send comments or questions to Chris at