For many people, the ritual of Black Friday rising early on the day after Thanksgiving to track down Christmas sale bargains is a tradition as honored as eating turkey and watching football the day before.
But what's usually marked as the start of the holiday shopping season is starting to fade in importance, as businesses aren't waiting for Thanksgiving to start the Christmas marketing blitz.
"We've always kicked off our holiday shopping the week before Thanksgiving," said McKell Law, marketing director for The Shops at Riverwoods, a Provo shopping center that's been getting an early start on the season since it opened in 1998.
This year, though, The Shops are not alone. In downtown Salt Lake City, City Creek Center started its first Christmas season on Nov. 15, a full week before Thanksgiving, with Santa Claus and the return of the candy windows to the Macy's (formerly ZCMI) storefront. Meanwhile, City Creek's competition to the west, The Gateway, launched the season on Nov. 17, with musician Kurt Bestor and the introduction of a light show synchronized to the Olympic Legacy Fountain.
"Black Friday gets so crazy," Law said, adding that the early opening is better suited for the Riverwoods' family-friendly environment.
Nationally, the big-box stores are jumping the gun on Black Friday, too and not just by tossing out the Halloween leftovers and stocking the seasonal aisles with Christmas stuff on Nov. 1.
Walmart, Target, ShopKo, Sears and Kmart all scheduled "Black Thursday" sales on the evening of Thanksgiving, while many people still will be in a post-turkey coma. But that's not alleviating the Black Friday madness so much as rescheduling it a few hours earlier.
Some shoppers "are almost scared of Black Friday," said Kyle Aldous, marketing director of Blickenstaff's, a toy-and-candy store at Riverwoods and, for the first time this year, The Gateway.
Blickenstaff's offers an alternative: It gives tickets to customers to let them in the store before and after normal hours the week of Thanksgiving, giving them access to the store's Black Friday prices a few days early.
"We wanted to do something for the customers and make them feel like they can get the Black Friday deals and not get involved in the chaos," Aldous said.
It's not just retailers who have to decide when to start celebrating Christmas.
Salt Lake City radio station KOSY 106.5 FM was the first in the market to start playing wall-to-wall Christmas music. The station launched on Nov. 2, more than a week ahead of rival KSFI, known as FM 100.
"The emails and calls start, honestly, in mid-October: 'When are you going to switch to Christmas music?' " said Jeff Cochran, KOSY's operations manager, adding that some listeners have told him they stay up 'til midnight on Halloween in hopes they'll go from "Monster Mash" to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in an instant.
The feeling isn't unanimous. "There are people who love it, and some who hate it," Cochran said. "Those that don't like it, it's funny how mean-spirited some of the notes are."
But there's money to be made in the holiday spirit. Cochran reports that KOSY's ratings more than double in November and December. "It just explodes," he said.
Likewise, Aldous said toy stores like Blickenstaff's rely heavily on the Christmas season. "Literally everyone [among toy retailers] runs negative, runs in the red all year until the last six weeks of the year," he said.
But "the most wonderful time of the year," as Andy Williams, may he rest in peace, sang, has its limits.
"It's the risk you run [starting too early]. A lot of people don't want to think about [Christmas] until after Thanksgiving," Aldous said. "You want to wait until you get through this holiday, and then think about the next one."
At KOSY, the start date for Christmas carols wavers a bit, but there is one firm line: Nov. 1.
"I can't see us playing Christmas music on Halloween," Cochran said.
There's also a firm end date: Dec. 26, Boxing Day. By then, Cochran said, people are ready to be done with Christmas. "Every Christmas song or at least most of them is about anticipation," he said. (He's right: After all, It's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," not "Santa Claus Has Just Been to Town.")
If you are feeling the added pressure of an extended holiday season either by the extra days of Christmas merchandise on the shelves, or the guilt trip that your purchases will somehow rescue the economy take heart in one signature event that's free and doesn't happen until after Thanksgiving: The lights at Temple Square will be switched on Friday, Nov. 23, around dusk.
Sean P. Meanswrites The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.