By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Americans gathered on Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving by stuffing turkeys and braving cold winds along parade routes, while others started the holiday shopping earlier than ever in a trend that some argued went against the spirit of the holiday.
With retailers offering "Black Friday" deals before Thanksgiving tables were even set on Thursday, critics circulated online petitions and a handful of franchise owners said they had defied corporate orders by keeping their stores closed for the holiday.
"It bothers me that this country is allowing them to dictate time away from our families," Holly Cassiano, who refused to open her Sears franchise in Plymouth, New Hampshire, told CNN.
A Pizza Hut restaurant manager in Elkhart, Indiana, who was fired for refusing to keep the restaurant open on Thanksgiving said the worldwide pizza chain had offered to rehire him and he was considering it.
Grocer Whole Foods said its Thanksgiving work shifts were voluntary and it would compensate staff with time-and-a-half pay. Discount chain Kmart said it had offered its holiday workers the same arrangement.
On a clear, sunny Thanksgiving, nose-diving morning temperatures after a rainy, snowy evening along the East Coast made for slick conditions during one of the nation's busiest travel times.
Mother Nature gave New York a break with winds just below the level that would have grounded Snoopy and other giant helium balloons in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, although Spiderman limped along after its left arm was torn by a tree branch. City regulations prohibit the massive inflatables from flying when sustained winds top 23 miles per hour (37 km per hour), and gusts exceed 34 mph.
With a high-calorie feast looming, some Americans participated in morning running races called turkey trots. In Glen Ridge, New Jersey, 3,000 people turned out, with some wearing turkey hats and headbands decorated with turkey drumsticks.
"On Thanksgiving, I'm grateful I can still run 5 miles so it's a great way to start the day since I'll be in the kitchen for the rest of it," said Patty Orsini, 54, a marketing analyst from Maplewood, New Jersey.
Elsewhere, eager consumers got a jump on the pre-Christmas shopping season, which has six fewer days than 2012. In New York, the Lord & Taylor flagship store on Fifth Avenue welcomed shoppers at 9 a.m. EST and it was business as usual at most shops around Times Square. However, early visits by Reuters to many stores found sparse crowds.
The Macy's parade, in its 87th year, was expected to be viewed by some 3 million others along its route through Manhattan and another 50 million people on television. This year the parade attracted controversy.
Rocker musician Joan Jett, who is a vegetarian and animal-rights activist, was moved off the South Dakota tourism float after cattle ranchers complained, although she remained in the parade. A SeaWorld float also stayed in the parade despite an outcry over keeping orcas in captivity by animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
In a rare coincidence, Thanksgiving overlaps with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah this year, which has sparked creation of the term "Thanksgivukkah" and spurred an enterprising 10-year-old boy, Asher Weintraub of New York, to design a turkey-shaped menorah - called a Menurkey - for dinner tables.
The two holidays will not fall on the same day again until 2070, according to the Jewish website Chabad.org.
Some 43 million people were expected to take trips on the holiday weekend, according to travel group AAA, despite heavy rain, wind and snow across parts of the eastern United States that started on Wednesday and snarled roadway and airport traffic.
In Augusta, Maine, temperatures fell to 26 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 3 degrees Celsius) and in Boston it was 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celsius), although the wind chill made it feel much colder in both places, meteorologists said on Weather.com.
IN THE KITCHENS
Even after arriving safely, families may find challenges in the kitchen this holiday. Butterball LLC reported a shortage of large, fresh turkeys, company spokeswoman Megan Downey said in an email message, adding that an investigation was under way.
At the White House, where first lady Michelle Obama is known for her focus on healthy eating, there was no sign of calorie cutting on the Thanksgiving menu. The Obamas were set to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal, including nine different pies - huckleberry, pecan, sweet potato, peach, apple, pumpkin, chocolate cream, banana cream and coconut cream.
Cooks also prepared honey-baked ham, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and two kinds of stuffing - cornbread and oyster, the White House said.
On the menu for inmates in Arizona under the watch of controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was a 56-cent meal featuring an entree of vegetarian turkey soy casserole.
"Hope the inmates give thanks for this special meal being served in the jails tomorrow," Arpaio said in a holiday meal preview he tweeted on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Dhanya Skariachan, Curtis Skinner, Elizabeth Dilts, Ian Simpson, Roberta Rampton and Edith Honan; Editing by Edith Honan and Gunna Dickson)