It's one of the biggest U.S. holidays, but some Americans are wondering if Thanksgiving, and the shop-until-you-drop Black Friday that follows it, might be getting a bit out of control.
Some 38.2 million Americans will hit the highway for the four-day holiday weekend that begins Thursday, with another 3.4 million taking to the air, the AAA motorists' association says.
Most will go back to their home towns for a family Thanksgiving dinner, with 88 percent of them tucking into roast turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, according to the National Turkey Federation.
Americans go through 46 million turkeys at Thanksgiving, more than double the 22 million consumed a month later at Christmas.
Once they've polished off their pumpkin-pie desserts, many will be off to the shopping malls for the pre-Christmas shopping melee known as Black Friday, when retailers slash prices on clothing, toys and consumer electronics.
"The amount of Black Friday shoppers will increase from 212 million last year to 225 million this year," says blackfriday2011.com, a kind of WikiLeaks for consumers looking to see Black Friday advertisements before publication.
So important is Black Friday to retailers — potentially more than $20 billion in sales, according to market analysis firm SpendingPulse — that many big-name outlets are opening earlier than ever.
Sears will be open on Thanksgiving morning, while Toys 'R' Us will open its doors at 10 pm Thursday, its earliest Black Friday opening ever. Walmart's jumbo-sized supercenters won't close at all.
"They're all trying to take market share away from each other," Cynthia Groves, head of global retail consulting at Newmarket Knight Frank in Washington, told AFP on Monday.
Not everyone is happy. More than 190,000 signed an online petition calling on Target, a food and department store chain, to rethink its plan to open at midnight Thanksgiving night.
"It's a national holiday, not a national shopping day," wrote one signer, Bryce Allision of Portland, Oregon. "Encouraging people to shop in the middle of the night is bizarre," added Scotty Brookie from Santa Cruz, California.
Anthony Hardwick, 29, a Target employee in Omaha, Nebraska, started the petition because he thought it was unfair for employees to go to work on what is supposed to be a family holiday.
But Anahita Cameron, a Target human resources executive, defended the idea of bargain-hunting at the witching hour.
"Our guests have expressed that they would prefer to kick off their holiday shopping by heading out after their holiday celebrations rather than getting up in the middle of the night," she said, using Target's euphemism for customers.
It's all a far cry from the original Thanksgiving in 1621 when Pilgrim settlers from England sat down with native Americans for a three-day feast in modern-day Massachusetts to thank God for bountiful harvests in the New World.
Emulating that meal this year will cost $49.20 for a family of 10, up $5.73 from last year, the American Farm Bureau Federation estimates.
That estimate includes a 16-pound turkey, bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, bread rolls and butter, peas, cranberries, a relish tray of carrots and celery, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and coffee and milk — but not wine or beer.
Turkey itself is 22 percent more expensive, due in part to growing demand from China for American turkey parts.
Heeding a White House tradition going back to 1947, Barack Obama will be exercising his special powers of presidential pardon to spare two turkeys — this year from Minnesota — from the meat cleaver.
Last year's fortunate pair, brothers Apple and Cider, ended up in a turkey coop on the grounds of founding father George Washington's rural estate at Mount Vernon, south of the U.S. capital.
But animal rights group PETA wants to see all turkeys pardoned.
"Regarded by many as little more than a holiday centerpiece, turkeys are as varied in personality as dogs and cats," it said on its website in a campaign to promote meat-free Thanksgiving alternatives.
"They relish having their feathers stroked and like to chirp, cluck, and gobble along to their favorite tunes. This year, give turkeys something to be thankful for — pledge to go vegan and leave them off your plate."
And Americans weary of cooking a big dinner — and cleaning up afterwards — are opting to go out for Thanksgiving at restaurants like the Green Mill in Wichita, Kansas, where a special buffet is priced at $13.95 per adult and $9.95 for children under 10. Reservations are recommended.
"A lot of people do seem to be interested in eating out at Thanksgiving," said Farm Bureau economist John Anderson, who intends to do just that with his family this year. "It saves time."