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New England laws still keep shoppers home for the holiday


PLYMOUTH, Mass. » Here in the birthplace of Thanksgiving, where the Pilgrims first gave thanks in 1621 for their harvest and their survival, some residents are giving thanks this year for something else: the Colonial-era blue laws that prevent retailers from opening their doors on the fourth Thursday of November.

While shoppers in the rest of the country will skip out on Thanksgiving to go to Wal-Mart or Kmart or other big-box stores, William Wrestling Brewster, whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower and participated in that first Thanksgiving, will limit his activities to enjoying a traditional meal here with his extended family at his parents’ house.

"Thanksgiving is supposed to be about giving thanks for all you have," said Brewster, 47, who runs a computer store. "I cringe to think what society is doing to itself," he said of the mercantile mania that threatens one of the least commercial holidays.

Some of the nation’s biggest retailers — Sears, Target and Toys R Us among them — announced this month that they would move up their predawn Black Friday door-buster sales to Thanksgiving Day or move up their existing Thanksgiving sales even earlier Thursday. Wal-Mart, which has already been open on Thanksgiving for many years, is advancing its bargain specials to 8 p.m. Thursday from 10 p.m.

But in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the stores will sit dark until the wee hours of Friday. Even Wal-Mart will not open in Maine until just after midnight Friday or in Massachusetts or Rhode Island until 1 a.m.

New England’s blue laws were put down by early settlers to enforce proper behavior on Sundays, ensuring time for worship and a day of rest. (The origin of the term is unclear. Some have said the laws were printed on blue paper, while others have said the word "blue" was meant to disparage those like the "blue noses" who imposed rigid moral codes on others.)

Over decades, many of those laws — which banned commerce, entertainment and alcohol sales, among other things — were tossed aside or ignored, or exemptions were granted. In some cases, the statutes were extended to holidays and barred retailers specifically from operating on Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Maine granted an exception to L.L. Bean, whose store in Freeport is open around the clock every day, including Christmas. When the blue laws, which had faded, were revived in the 1950s, the store in Freeport was already operating 24/7, said Carolyn Beem, a spokeswoman. She said that the store, which originally catered to hunters and fishermen who shopped at odd hours, was grandfathered in and allowed to stay open on the holidays.

Nationwide, a protest is developing against Thanksgiving Day sales. Workers at some stores have threatened to strike, saying the holiday openings were disrupting their family time. Several online petitions have drawn hundreds of thousands of signatures protesting the move. The stores say that many of their employees have volunteered to work on the holiday, when they will get extra pay, and that consumers wanted to shop early. It is not yet clear what effect the protests might have.

At the same time, this corner of New England is serving as something of a bulwark against the forces of commercialism.

Even the Retailers Association of Massachusetts is treading gently on the notion of Thanksgiving sales.

"There hasn’t been any outcry from our members over the years pushing this," said Bill Rennie, vice president of the association.

But, as Thanksgiving shopping becomes more common, he said, "it may be time to have a discussion about it."

Blue laws seem anachronistic when people can shop anytime online, he said.

There is also the case of simple economics. These states are already at risk of losing sales to stores in New Hampshire, which has no sales tax. Now, Rennie pointed out, they could lose even more in the holiday bargain rush when stores in New Hampshire are open.

Still, Barry Finegold, a Massachusetts state senator whose district abuts New Hampshire, said that so far, none of the retailers in his district had asked for a change in the law.

"My phone has not been ringing off the hook," he said. "In my opinion, it’s not a national tragedy if Wal-Mart can’t open at 8 o’clock on Thanksgiving Day."

Even several shoppers at Plymouth’s Wal-Mart Supercenter said they did not want the store open Thursday.

"Leave the holidays alone," said Carole A. Maiona, 72, a retired medical records worker, as her husband wheeled a shopping cart out of the store the other day. "The family should be together and not out shopping and supplying Wal-Mart or whoever with more money."

William Lorenzo, 35, who serves in the Coast Guard, said Thanksgiving Day sales were unfair to employees.

"It’s not very American to make these people work on a holiday," he said, packing his groceries into his van.

His wife, Nicole, 33, agreed — to a point. She confessed that she went shopping last year at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. "I don’t go just to go," she said. "But if I can get a better deal — we’re a family of five, one income — if I can get a deal, I’ll get the deal."

Some shoppers said they were so eager for bargains that they would drive to New Hampshire on Thanksgiving.

"We’re going," said Jen Gallagher, 34, who works in grant management. Early odd-hour shopping has, for her, become a tradition.

"I like the hustle and bustle of it," she said. Her husband stays home with the children, "and I sneak out," she said. "And before anybody wakes up, I’m done, the gifts are hidden."

Beyond the malls, Plymouth has its version of a Thanksgiving mob scene. The Plimoth Plantation, a living museum (spelled the old-fashioned way) that tells the story of the original colonists, draws about 4,000 visitors on Thanksgiving Day, about half of whom will have dinner there.

A family does not have to have come over on the Mayflower to appreciate Thanksgiving here. Olly deMacedo, who came to this country from the Cape Verde islands in 1966 when he was 7, started his journey on a freighter. Now, he is a driving force behind the town’s annual Thanksgiving celebration, which includes a parade, food festival and concerts. All are held the weekend before Thanksgiving — 200,000 people came this year — so as not to interfere with the day itself.

"To have the parade on Thursday, or shopping on Thursday, would pull people away from the very thing we’re celebrating," deMacedo said.

Among those in the parade Saturday was Rebecca Tuchak, 33, a restaurant manager, who was dressed in Pilgrim garb and riding a float that honored the first Thanksgiving. As she held her 3-month-old daughter, she said she had been staggered to learn that of the original 102 Mayflower passengers, about half had died during their first winter here.

"It’s amazing to think of all the things we have and all the things they didn’t have, and yet they still gave thanks," she said. "I don’t think you’ll find a group of people more against opening stores on Thanksgiving than us."

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