🎁'Tis the season to support public service journalism Donate Now
By The Numbers

5 trends – including TV dinners – spawned by Thanksgiving

Shea Huffman Nov 28, 2013

Thanksgiving is, at least in name and spirit, a day to reflect on things for which we are grateful. Its origins date back to harvest-time celebrations of gratitude that past cultures have observed.

The modern iteration is a decidedly North American practice (remember, Canada celebrates their Thanksgiving in October). The holiday’s importance in American culture has evolved from early colonial religious traditions, to an official civic holiday proclaimed by President Lincoln, to a symbol of American perseverence and freedom during the Great Depression.

Nowadays, it seems the best and worst of our economy is the defining characteristic of Thanksgiving, as the ever-expanding Black Friday that marks the start of the Christmas shopping season tends to dominate most discussion of the holiday. But getting out to shop is not the only economic legacy of Turkey Day. Here are a few business trends that owe either their existence, or at least a good chunk of their success, to Thanksgiving.

1. Black Friday. Might as well start out with the most obvious economic trend that’s popped up around Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving has become symbolic of consumer culture, and how reliant our economy is on that consumer behavior, as shoppers rush to get their Christmas shopping done and to take advantage of “big” discounts from retailers. Conventional wisdom tells us that the name, “Black Friday,” refers to the idea that it’s the day retailers start making profits, known as being “in the black.” Some research has found the term actually originated from police officers in 1960s Philadelphia who disparaged the heavy traffic they found themselves in as shoppers crowded retailers.

But why did Black Friday start in the first place, and why that particular weekend right after Thanksgiving? The most likely explanation is that unlike other holidays, most non-retail employees have both Thanksgiving and the day after off, followed by a weekend, which increases the number of potential shoppers. As the decades wore on and the media became more fond of the seasonal story, Black Friday became the busiest shopping day of the year in 2005, stealing away the top spot from the last Saturday before Christmas. Now, Black Friday has become a beast all of its own, threatening to devour the holiday that begat it as more retailers are opening their doors on Thanksgiving itself.

2. Charity. As ugly as Black Friday can sometimes get, Thanksgiving does encourage some admirable economic behavior as well. The image of the Thanksgiving food drive is as common as the waves of shoppers, if not as flashy. Charities actually find the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons to be their busiest times of year; some food banks get 60 percent of their donations between September and December, and some even get so many volunteers that they have to turn some away.

3. Turkey. It’s no surprise that the turkey industry owes its success to “Turkey Day,” as millions of the birds are served up all at once. Farmers and meatpackers actually stockpile turkey just for Thanksgiving so they can meet demand. It goes a bit deeper than that too; like many livestock animals that are raised on an industrial scale, turkeys as we know them today wouldn’t exist without the selective breeding techniques that made them genetically-engineered (in the old-fashioned sense) to please human palates. This is especially true for turkeys, as since the wild variety of the birds don’t have much of the coveted white meat on them, humans have bred domesticated turkeys with breasts so large that they can’t actually reproduce naturally

4. TV Dinners. Thanksgiving is also responsible for another famous bit of food culture — the frozen, pre-packaged meal — or so the story goes. According to marketing industry legend, the Swanson brothers found their food company overstocked with about 260 extra tons of Thanksgiving turkey in 1953. Needing to do something with the leftovers, the company looked to employees for suggestions. Salesman Gerry Thomas, inspired by the aluminum trays airlines had started using to serve in-flight meals, suggested the idea of dividing the the turkey into cheap, frozen meals. While the company didn’t invent the process of flash-freezing the food, it was their bright idea to attach their marketing campaign to the lastest craze sweeping the nation: Television. Thus, Thanksgiving gave us the TV dinner — if you believe the story.

5. Bars’ busiest drinking night. The day after Thanksgiving is the year’s busiest shopping day, and the night before is the year’s busiest drinking night, at least according to bartenders. Mostly anecdotal evidence points to Thanksgiving Eve as the biggest drinking night of the year, bigger even than New Years Eve or St. Patrick’s Day. Restaurants and bars do report a big jump in business the night before the holiday, so there might be a grain of truth to the night’s reputation. It makes sense when you consider that unlike other holidays, nearly every American has Thanksgiving off (unless you work retail or food service) and nobody wants to cook the night before Thanksgiving, making that particular Wednesday night a perfect time to relax. It’s not just bars that have caught on to the trend, though, as many police organizations ramp up anti-drunk driving measures that night as well.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.