The over-the-top shopping day after Thanksgiving, known as “Black Friday,” has gotten so big that it’s not really confined to Friday any more. Retail stores used to kick off their Black Friday sales marathons in the wee hours before dawn; now they’re starting at midnight, or even Thursday evening. Saturday brings a barrage of emails assuring shoppers that Black Friday pricing is still in effect.

The Thanksgiving weekend culminates in a new tradition, “Cyber Monday,” in which online retailers offer special deals to Internet shoppers. But Cyber Monday is also too big for any one day. Many of the deals actually begin on Thanksgiving or Black Friday, and frequently extend well into Tuesday.

Does that sound confusing? Good. Many retailers like it that way. The ideal Thanksgiving weekend marketplace is filled with dazed customers who don’t really know when to begin, or end, their bargain hunting. The hype surrounding Black Friday creates an atmosphere of frenzy, which can become even more pronounced in tough economic times, as people who have lived frugally throughout the year decide to take advantage of big sales and splurge on holiday gifts for their loved ones. The Thanksgiving shop-a-pocalypse often has a certain air of desperation around it.