The way Brenda Bracey tells the story, it's just short of a miracle.
"Twenty-three years," she says. "This is the first Thanksgiving in 23 years that I have not worked at least an eight-hour shift."
For almost a quarter-century, Bracey has been working at grocery stores in the town of Largo, on Florida's west coast. She's done all different jobs, she says, her voice bubbly over the phone line.
"Right now I'm in the deli, because I'm at the bottom of the totem pole," she says with a laugh. She recently changed stores — from supermarket chain Winn-Dixie to another called Publix — and has to once again work her way up.
So there she was about a month ago, working at the deli, when somebody said something about Publix being closed on Thanksgiving.
"And I stopped what I was doing," Bracey says. "And I said, 'Wait a minute, we're not open on Thanksgiving?' " She says her coworkers gave her a puzzled look. Then it hit her: "I said, 'Oh my god! I'm off on Thanksgiving!' And they all started laughing and said, 'That's it, we're going to Brenda's house for Thanksgiving.' "
For Bracey and the millions of other Americans who work in retail — about one in ten U.S. workers — the Thanksgiving weekend kicks off the most intense stretch of the year.
"It's like going down the rabbit hole," says Louise Treadway, who works at a jewelry store in a Portland mall. "It's the beginning of a very challenging, and sometimes stressful, and sometimes exciting part of the year. That's the start of the season — not that they aren't already playing Christmas music at the mall!"
For many retailers, Black Friday is the busiest shopping day. In recent years some stores have begun stretching the deals into Thanksgiving and even earlier in the week. The Thanksgiving openings have been somewhat controversial — a September survey by BestBlackFriday.com is the latest to find that a majority of Americans view Thanksgiving store openings negatively.
Hundreds of stores and malls, including the Mall of America, have decided to stay closed on Thanksgiving this year. For some smaller or specialty stores that don't offer door-buster sales, the math doesn't make Thanksgiving openings worth it. But many large retailers like Walmart, Target, Best Buy and Macy's are staying open.
"This is the first time I haven't actually celebrated Thanksgiving on the day itself," says Casey Hammond, who's working part time at an outdoor gear retailer in upstate New York.
Hammond is slated to work from 5 p.m. to midnight on Thursday, followed by another shift Friday morning. He says he appreciates that he gets extra pay for the work and still can celebrate on another day.
"I'm trying to be of that mindset," he says, "but it's still a little bit weird to me."
For grocery stores, Thanksgiving is the day of the big crowds, while Black Friday is for cleanup. So when I ask Bracey how she feels when she thinks about those two days, she lets out a sigh. You have to work faster and longer, she says.
"By the time the holiday gets here, you're just so tired, you don't care — 'we're eating cocoa-puffs,' " she says with a laugh. Thankfully, she gets Black Friday off this year as well.
Bracey's usual Thanksgiving routine has involved preparing dishes early and leaving sticky notes on them for her sons: "I go in the oven at 10:30."
But wouldn't it be nice to ... say that in person?
Bracey says she is grateful to have a job in the first place. "The good parts for me is I was able to support my family," she says. "You know, we're not rich, but it kept a roof over our home and food on the table."
But she's also realizing the cost of those 23 years of working on Thanksgiving: "I don't think I realized the significance of it, and I wish I could get that back. To me it wasn't a fair trade — not just for me but for the time that I had with those kids — for stupid things like going buying the food together. You know, just time together ... that we didn't have."
She pauses, then adds: "But we're going to have it this year." And then: "I'm gonna drive 'em crazy!" And she breaks into a laugh.