There was a time, long ago, when it was easy to pinpoint the beginning and end of the "Christmas season."
In cultures linked to centuries of Christian tradition, the feast of Christmas -- the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ or Christ Mass -- was on Dec. 25, the start of a festive 12-day season that ended with the Feast of the Epiphany. Many Eastern Orthodox churches continue to use the ancient Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on Jan. 7.
Then there is the "Christmas season" for the whole culture.
One big change occurred on Dec. 26, 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- focusing on Christmas shopping -- signed a joint resolution of Congress defining Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November. That established an official starting line for the dash to Christmas.
(Roosevelt had moved Thanksgiving briefly to the third Thursday in November, a move that had proved unpopular.)
By the early 1960s, the name "Black Friday" was attached to the day after Thanksgiving, with armies of shoppers heading to downtown stores and, eventually, the shopping malls that replaced them. This brand of Christmas opened with a bang, with throngs gathering before dawn to grab "Black Friday" bargains, with police present to control the inevitable pushing and shoving.
Then came the internet, with more changes in the size and shape of the commercial steamroller known as the "Holidays."
"It's safe to say that Black Friday has become a concept, not an event. We have ended up with Black Fridays all the way down" the calendar during November, said Jeremy Lott, managing editor for publications at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and former editor of the RealClearReligion website.
"Basically, we're talking about Black Friday after Black Friday everywhere, world without end. Amen," he added.
It's true that millions of shoppers can flock to any "malls that are still open," he said. But in terms of large-scale holiday rites, the "liturgy of the shopping mall" has devolved into smaller rites focusing on waves of sales in strip-mall shops and big-box stores located nearby.
At the same time, regional, national and international computer networks and digital "clouds" are making it easy for on-the-ground businesses to create new "Holiday" options in the marketplace, in which everyone, everywhere, is caught in a life-and-death struggle with Amazon.com and the online giants.
Thus, the old "Black Friday" after Thanksgiving led to "Small Business Saturday," followed by "Cyber Monday" and "Giving Tuesday." Meanwhile, anyone paying attention to television networks, cable television networks and online streaming services has seen "Christmas" and "Holiday" programs and advertisements creep, in reverse, all the way back Halloween.
In a Washington Examiner commentary, Lott noted that it's hard to know how these realities will shape the future -- for businesses or consumers. One shopper told Lott that the trend of extending the borders of the season "makes me turn into a combination of Charlie Brown and Ted Kaczynski," referring to the domestic terrorist known as the Unabomber.
"The jury is still out on whether earlier sales will provide a big boost for retailers," Lott wrote. "Many consumers profess disgust at the widening of the holiday selling season, yet economists distinguish between stated and revealed preferences. Stated preferences are what we say; revealed preferences are what we actually do."
Based on polling from this fall, Gallup researchers reported that when asked "when they planned to start shopping this year, 41% of U.S. holiday shoppers" said they planned to "start their shopping before November."
What about Christmas, the holy day? In the midst of all this change, it's getting harder for Christian leaders to know how to handle Christmas, not to mention the once quiet, penitential season during the weeks before Dec. 25, known as Advent (Nativity Lent in Eastern Orthodoxy).
The question is whether the rise of online shopping and "Holiday" sales spread over a larger amount of time will make it easier, or harder, for religious believers to focus on their faith before and after Dec. 25.
"The one big mall is dead," Lott noted. "The mall has been unbundled and now it's everywhere. You can go online and do your shopping without heading into the old Black Friday crush and maybe even getting hurt. You don't have to do that anymore. You have other options. The question is what kinds of choices people are going to make when dealing with these changes."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.