Remember when people used to wake at 5 a.m. and brave the traffic and the crowds the Friday after Thanksgiving in search of good deals?

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So many people kicked off their holiday shopping season after a day of family, football, turkey, and cranberries that merchants began to call that day “Black Friday” — a nickname in honor of the day’s massive profits. Friday morning seems to come earlier every year. This year, Black Friday is actually starting Thursday evening, with Wal-Mart opening at 8 p.m. and other stores, such as Target, close on its heels.

Every year, the stories emerge. People spend their entire Thanksgiving camped out in front of big-box stores. Reports emerge of store employees being trampled by mobs of deal-crazed shoppers. So, I have to ask. What about you? Do you think it’s worth it?

My brother works at a major retailer, and he’s worked several Black Fridays to date. We spoke this weekend, and I asked him: Honestly, is it worth it? Are the deals that good? How crazy do the crowds get? He said while it’s intense, he’s never seen any fights in his store, and none of their employees have ever been injured opening the doors for the waiting stampede. Still, he laughed at my idea that stores should hire professional football players to open the doors. A friend lamented that the Great Recession hasn’t dampened our nationwide case of stuffitis.

I do know that many workers have to arrive much earlier than opening time to put up displays and prep the inventory for one of the year’s busiest shopping days. Perhaps some of them don’t mind, but I can’t help but think it’s unfair that they have to celebrate abbreviated Thanksgivings so stores can make headlines and money. Perhaps I’m being rude, but I have to question the priorities of someone who would spend the Thanksgiving holiday camping in front of a store instead of making memories at home with their families. Maybe in their own way, they’re making memories. Maybe it’s about the adventure, not the deal itself.

It’s true that many stores make huge profits on Black Friday and in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. One could argue that Black Friday shopping provides a strong footing for stores throughout the rest of the year and that employees benefit from their employers’ financial stability. Still, how much additional dough do those hours between 8 p.m. Thursday and 6 a.m.–or even midnight–on Friday? Wouldn’t most of those shoppers would be there regardless of opening time?

Personally, as an individual consumer, I’ve never seen the appeal. As far as I can tell, retailers are selling the same merchandise they sell every other day of the year, with some of it discounted. There are a few good deals, mostly on electronics. Perhaps because most of the goods I buy as gifts–books, food, and locally made goods–aren’t notable Black Friday steals, I’ve never been tempted. Perhaps if I had children, I’d be more willing to go out in search of a Black Friday deal on this year’s hottest toy or gaming system.

Has Black Friday–a moniker that honors money, not the spirit of the season–turned the season of giving into the season of getting? Is the frenzy of shoppers made rabid by crowds and sales really the best way to honor the holidays? We turn quickly, immediately from Thanksgiving, a holiday of gratitude, to Christmas, a season of giving. That’s why I was moved by this story, from CNN.com, about a woman who organizes a group of shoppers to purchase goods to donate. Last year, they bought $10,000 worth of merchandise for $2,000–and donated all of it to needy families. Now, that’s the season I prefer to think about.

As for me, I’ll continue to honor my Black Friday tradition, by eating leftovers, baking cookies, and decorating my Christmas tree. I’ll eventually venture out the following week, scooping up  a few toys to donate to Toys for Tots and buying presents for my family gift exchange, my hubby, and my friends. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fight over a discounted TV set or Blu-Ray player; there’s no shortage of those things in our stores throughout the year.

What about you? Are there any deals that will entice you to brave the madness? Do you see the appeal? Or do you think we’ve gone too far? Should stores remain closed on Thanksgiving? Where do we draw the line?

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