Major merchants used to open early the day after Thanksgiving. Traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the year. It’s called Black Friday because it’s supposed to help put retailers in the black, or the profitable side on their ledger books.

Promising great bargains for those early-bird risers, they once opened at 6 a.m. Then 4 a.m. Then earlier.

A couple of years ago, they started at midnight Thanksgiving evening. They then moved it back to 10 p.m. on turkey day. Now sales start at some stores even earlier. Walmart, for example, which is open 24 hours, will start its sales at 6 p.m. Toys R Us starts at 5 p.m.

Pretty soon, the entire day of Thanksgiving could be eaten away by nervous retailers trying to outdo one another for holiday shopping dollars.

A Christmas creep backlash is already underway as people sign petitions against stores opening on Thanksgiving.

Merchants realize the all-important holiday shopping season can account for up to 40 percent of their sales in a year, and they continue to nibble into a day that is traditionally set aside for families.

Thanksgiving used to be a day off work, a day to laze around after stuffing yourself with turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and all the fixings. It should be a day to watch football, scan thick newspapers for sales the following day, watch a movie, spend time with friends, or just stay home and do as little as possible.

But retailers, beaten down by the long and deep recession and eager to boost the bottom line at their competitors’ expense, now feel like they can’t afford not to be open.

Make no mistake about it, competition is good. And prosperous merchants help the overall economy. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of the U.S. economy, and people should patronize retailers and buy their loved ones a gift in the true spirit of the holidays if they can afford it.

But there are 363 other days on the calendar when retailers can make their money. (Christmas is the last remaining day when most stores actually close.)

Thanksgiving should be set aside for giving thanks and remembering the bounty of blessings America has to offer.

Three states — Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — don’t allow major retailers to be open on Thanksgiving. Perhaps others should follow, though that’s unlikely.

Christmas is a magical time of year, but Christmas creep has gotten to the point that annual holiday cartoons start airing before Thanksgiving; radio stations start playing holiday music Nov. 1; and holiday displays now crowd out Halloween decor on store shelves.

Some blame Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, for setting the trend for earlier and earlier openings on Thanksgiving.

Other retailers have followed suit, not willing to risk their early share of the holiday pie, especially with the economy still in recovery mode.

And so bite by bite, Thanksgiving is eaten away. Hour by hour, year after year retailers are devouring Thanksgiving and what it means. Black Friday’s traditional thunder is now a whimper.

Some Americans are already rising up to say, “We want our Thanksgiving back. Close the stores until Friday morning.”

Of course, as long as shoppers show up, the stores will stay open, earlier and earlier each year.

For everyone else, it’s a chance to send a message simply by staying home with the family today. Merchants will savor your holiday spending dollars just as much tomorrow.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.