Black Friday used to refer to the Friday after Thanksgiving, a massive shopping day that featured huge sales, long lines, and hot items selling out. The day after Thanksgiving is still a huge shopping day, but the holiday season no longer kicks off so discretely. Sales started early in the month and many big retailers will launch their biggest sales on Thanksgiving itself.

That has made something that was once frenzied but easy to understand a little more complicated. Shoppers not only have to figure out when each retailer will offer the best deals -- which could be Thanksgiving, Black Friday, or Cyber Monday -- but which chains open Thursday and which don't.

There's a lot of noise, with seemingly every retailer claiming it has the lowest prices.

Luckily, the writers at fool.com have done a deep dive into Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the holiday shopping season. We let you know what the major retailers -- think Amazon, Target, Walmart, Best Buy, and more -- are doing, and we also offer shopping strategies, budgeting tips, and other ways to make the most of your money. We also tell you what not to buy at certain retailers, and help you figure out how to shop at Sears Holdings and other retailers that may not survive much past the holiday season.

Consider this your all-purpose guide to Black Friday and the holiday shopping season. Remember to have a budget and a shopping plan, and do plenty of homework so you can celebrate the holidays, not spend them regretting how much money you've blown.

A woman looks at a tablet while carrying multiple shopping bags.

Black Friday is now a season and a lot of shopping takes place online, although stores still dominate sales. Image source: Getty Images.

A huge time for retail

Every retailer wants your attention and your shopping dollars. All deals, however, are not created equal, and as a responsible shopper you should walk into a store (or visit it online) knowing what you want to buy and what you expect to pay for it.

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Don't get swept up by the madness

If you buy a new bicycle because it's $400 off its normal $600 asking price, you have only saved money if it's something you (or someone on your gift list) wants or needs. Spending money is spending money, no matter how big the discount.

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The most wonderful time of the year?

Black Friday has changed a lot over the past few years. In fact, you can argue that the shopping day -- while still important -- is on a path toward just being another day in a long season. Our Foolish writers examined the ongoing relevance of the Friday after Thanksgiving and looked into lots of other facts, trends, predictions, and changes for the holiday season.

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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.