Second-grader Rozie Aronov, 7, holds up a menurkey, a paper-and-paint mashup of a menorah and turkey she created at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, Mich. The recent class project reflects one way for Jews in the United States to deal with a rare quirk of the calendar that overlaps Thanksgiving with the start of Hanukkah.
(Photo: Paul Sancya, AP)
Santa himself could probably sum up this holiday season in two words: Oy vey.
One of the most topsy-turvy holiday seasons since the invention of the shopping mall begins on Thanksgiving with Hanukkah. Wait, make that, it begins on Hanukkah with Thanksgiving.
No, there won't be eight days of Thanksgiving this year - or one day of Hanukkah. But the confusion is understandable. This also is the very first holiday season when Thanksgiving Day becomes the new Black Friday, except it's on Thursday night.
Holiday shoppers - and sellers - have another headache: a serious seasonal shopping squeeze. There are, after all, a scant 26 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which means less time to buy and sell stuff - and less time to beg, bribe or bamboozle consumers into diving for the deals.
"It might seem that time is out of joint this holiday season," says Robert Thompson, pop culture professor at Syracuse University. "But Pilgrims and Maccabees make some sense as allies in the dining table centerpiece. Each fought against the odds - and won."
So, who wins this holiday season: shoppers or sellers?
Perhaps neither. The familiar 'Happy Holidays' greeting has arguably been twisted this season into "Wacky Holidays." Never mind that the National Retail Federation has projected that spending will be up 3.9% to $602.1 billion this year. That may be more prayer than prediction.
After all, the very look, feel and taste of shopping already is off-kilter, with six fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The coincidence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah falling on the same day - dubbed Thanksgivukkah - feels, to some, about as cosmically stable as a dreidel on its last spin. And the remolding of Thanksgiving into a shopping fest has even received the blessing of retailing's unofficial papacy: Macy's.
Perhaps instead of moving Black Friday to Thanksgiving Day, it should have been moved to Wednesday - the day before Thanksgiving, suggests futurist Watts Wacker. "How else is one going to get a deal on the Hanukkah presents?" he wryly asks.
"It's Crazy Christmas this year, for sure," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. "Retailers are worried about this and will promote all throughout the holidays to compete to get the consumer."
That's retailers like Toys R Us. The shortened holiday calendar "has certainly put some challenges in front of us," says Richard Barry, chief merchandising officer at Toys R Us. But the retailer has been planning for this for more than a year, he says.
Toys "R" Us has mapped out in excruciating detail special advertising, marketing and merchandising plans for every single day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. For competitive reasons, Barry declined to detail even one day, but he says, "Each day has its own plan."
Sounds more like a war than a store strategy, no?
Among the things Toys R Us has done to get us shopping earlier: Its loyalty customers received 10% back on toy purchases during September and October via an e-gift card delivered just in time for holiday shopping. Loyalty customers also received an exclusive e-mail offer, granting them access to sought-after deals the day before Thanksgiving that aren't available to the general public.
Kohl's concocted some savvy ways to lure consumers in before Black Friday. Among other things, the chain this holiday is selling something at deep, deep discount that almost no one connects with the store: TVs.
For Thanksgiving evening, it is promoting this door-buster: 32-inch TVs for $139.99. After the holidays, well, it's yet to be decided whether the TVs stay in the year-round merchandise mix or go, says Michelle Gass, chief customer officer. It depends, in part, on how they sell.
The trick isn't just to surprise the consumer but to "disrupt" the consumer's state of mind by offering them things they never expected, she says.
Most consumers won't fully recognize how out-of-kilter the shopping calendar is until they return to work on Cyber Monday - following Black Friday - and realize it's already Dec. 2, says Barry of Toys R Us.
Among those trying to deal with the calendar crunch is Toni Bloomfield. She's a stay-at-home mom in Columbus, Ohio, with four kids: boys ages 2, 6 and 9 and a girl who is 4.
On Thanksgiving Day, they'll all be at the beach in Naples, Fla., with her in-laws. Although Bloomfield and her husband are raising the kids Catholic, her in-laws are Jewish, so she expects to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving together.
Then, after the kids are asleep, she just might sneak away to check out a Thanksgiving night sale or two.
"What I can't imagine is that people would spend Thanksgiving Day waiting in lines to get into stores," Bloomfield says. "I wouldn't do that."
What she already has done, however, is more than half of her Christmas shopping. Last year, she hadn't done any until after Thanksgiving, but because of the shortened holiday season and planned family travel, she has rammed it into gear. The Bloomfield family will spend pretty much what it did last year on gifts. "We have four kids, so if you get four presents each, which makes 16 presents, it can get out of control."
So, too, could the efforts by some families to mold Thanksgiving and Hanukkah into one big, happy holiday - particularly if the celebration degrades into a debate about who got the biggest superstore deal.
"Remember that both celebrations are about giving, not getting," says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, a network of 900 Jewish reform congregations. And the giving part, he adds, is less about stuff and more about friendship and thanks.
Which is precisely why Leslie Frishberg, a homemaker and mother of two daughters ages 11 and 19, actually loves that Thanksgiving and the first full day of Hanukkah are falling on the same day.
Because Hanukkah is so far from Christmas this year, she says, the commercialism is almost certain to be downplayed. And the combination of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah means the family focus will be front and center, she says. "This is the best of all worlds."
And, yes, she got all of her Hanukkah shopping done early - without stepping into a single store. Frishberg did most of her shopping on Amazon.com, she says. "I live in Brooklyn," she says. "Who wants to drag to the mall?"
The folks at Barnes & Noble don't really care if consumers drag to the mall or buy online, just so they turn to them early and often.
So eager was the book-selling giant to jump ahead of the holiday curve, it opted not to wait to hold its big seasonal bash on Black Friday or even on Thanksgiving. Instead, it concocted a sale aimed at luring shoppers a full week before Black Friday: Discovery Friday. The event tantalized Barnes & Noble members with things like 20% discounts on the just-launched Nook GlowLight, an e-reader with built-in front lighting.
The purpose: "To give customers more time to kick-start their shopping," says Mary Amicucci, the chain's vice president for children's books.
So that's what it's come down to: a holiday kick-start.
Sharper Image, whose products are sold in Macy's and other stores, began its marketing efforts 2½ weeks earlier this year than last year, says Dari Marder, chief marketing officer at Iconix, which owns the Sharper Image brand.
Marder's family, including three kids ages 16, 13 and 10, celebrates Hanukkah, but they plan to focus on Thanksgiving the first night. "We have so many nights of Hanukkah, but just one night of Thanksgiving," she says.
Even then, she says, since she'll be celebrating with her folks in Florida, the Hanukkah candles will certainly be lit, "if my mother has anything to say about it."
Some rightfully feel wedged - this holiday in particular - between their families and their professions.
Moms like Maureen Bausch. She's the executive vice president for business development at the giant Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
Like many, Bausch must spend a chunk of Thanksgiving evening at the mall working. She loves her job, and she still gets a charge from the excitement of holiday retailing. But in a perfect world, she concedes in a moment of candor, "We wouldn't be open until Friday morning."
That is not retail blasphemy. It's honesty. Many of the very same retailers who will do almost anything to hit their sales goals this holiday also yearn to be home with their families on Thanksgiving, she says. It's almost impossible to do both. She points a finger at one culprit: Amazon.com.
"If Amazon closed on Thanksgiving, it would change the course of history," she says wishfully of the digital retailer that encourages everyone to shop from home at any time. "If it closed on Thanksgiving, everyone else would."
Of course, it won't.
So this Thanksgiving, Bausch will find just enough time to share turkey with her three children - and as many of her 33 other family members as she can - then rush off to the sprawling 520-store mall, where some shops will open as early as 6 p.m.
Her Thanksgiving pumpkin pie will have to wait, she says. "I'll be having dessert on Friday."