President Franklin D. Roosevelt accomplished many things. He was elected president four times and led the country out of the Great Depression and to victory in World War II. Yet there was one thing even this most remarkable of presidents couldn’t do. As he learned the hard way, you don’t monkey around with Thanksgiving.
We all know how the Pilgrims observed the first Thanksgiving celebration. (Though historical research suggests it was held between Sept. 11 and Nov. 11, 1621, not in late November.)
It was an on-again, off-again thing over the next 150 years. President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Day presidential proclamation in 1789, designating Thursday, Nov. 26 as the holiday. Six more followed in the coming decades. (Neither of James Madison’s two Thanksgivings were observed in autumn.) Governors in two dozen states got in on the act, setting their own dates.
Finally, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln established the tradition we know today. He proclaimed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. And so it was commemorated every year thereafter.
Until 1939. The country was still clawing its way out of the Depression. It had slid into a nasty recession between 1937 and 1938; although things we better by 1939, the economy was far from robust. Then the calendar dealt retailers a nasty blow.
There were five Thursdays in November 1939. Observing Thanksgiving Day on the traditional last Thursday of the month put it on the 30th. Then as now, the Christmas shopping season could make or break stores. It was considered bad taste back then to launch the holiday shopping season before Thanksgiving. So-called blue laws kept shops closed on Sundays, too. That meant there would be only 20 shopping days in 1939’s Christmas season.
So business owners turned to FDR for help. They persuaded him to proclaim Thursday the 23rd as Thanksgiving Day, adding six precious days for gift-buying.
When the public heard about it on Aug. 31, the outcry was seismic. In the eyes of many Americans, Thanksgiving was almost sacred. Moving it was blasphemy. A Gallup poll found folks opposed the change 62 percent to 38 percent.
Roosevelt was a deeply polarizing politician at the time, so it’s no surprise the divide followed partisan lines. Atlantic City, N.J.’s very young (and very Republican) Mayor Thomas Taggart called the new date “Franksgiving” (after Roosevelt’s first name).
Alf Landon, FDR’s 1936 GOP opponent, accused the president of “springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”
The switch also caused huge headaches for college football teams, who’d already planned major games between traditional rivals on Nov. 30. They scrambled to readjust their schedules.
Presidential proclamations are only expressions of sentiment; they aren’t legally binding. State governments in 22 of the then-48 states decided to observe Thanksgiving on the 30th. The other 23 states stuck with the 23rd. And three states — Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas — observed both dates! (Apparently people there picked whichever Thanksgiving Day they wanted.)
Comedians had a field day. It was a huge topic on radio shows. The Three Stooges even joined in the fun. In their short film "No Census, No Feeling," Curly says the Fourth of July is in October. When Moe disputes that Curly replies, “You never can tell. Look what they did to Thanksgiving!”
There was more division again in 1940 with states squaring off in separate “Democratic Thanksgivings” and “Republican Thanksgivings."
By 1942, Congress had had enough. It passed a law formally declaring the fourth Thursday of November as the holiday’s official date. FDR was thrilled to toss that hot potato out of his lap and quickly signed the bill.
A final bit of irony: A 1941 Commerce Department study found moving Thanksgiving Day ahead an extra week hadn’t produced a noticeable increase in holiday retail sales. All that colossal pain in the rump had been for nothing.
As with so many other ideas coming out of Washington, D.C., “Franksgiving” quietly disappeared into the “seemed like a good idea at the time” file.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.
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