|FDR preparing for one of his fireside chats.|
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a lot to think about in 1939. The world had been suffering from the Great Depression for a decade and the Second World War had just erupted in Europe. On top of that, the U.S. economy continued to look bleak. So when U.S. retailers begged him to move
up a week to increase the shopping days before Christmas, he agreed.
He probably considered it a small change; however, when FDR issued his
Thanksgiving Proclamation with the new date, there was an uproar
throughout the country.
As most schoolchildren know, the
history of Thanksgiving
began when Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together to celebrate
a successful harvest. The first Thanksgiving was held in the fall of
1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, and was a three-day
feast. The Pilgrims were joined by approximately 90 of the local
Wampanoag tribe, including Chief Massasoit, in celebration. They ate
fowl and deer for certain and most likely also ate berries, fish, clams,
plums, and boiled pumpkin.
On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared the last Thursday in November to be a day of "thanksgiving and praise." For the first time, Thanksgiving became a national, annual holiday with a specific date.
FDR Changes It
For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving. However, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not. In 1939, the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. There were five Thursdays in the month of November. Retailers complained to FDR that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. In August 1939, Lew Hahn, general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, warned Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins that the late calendar date of Thanksgiving that year (November 30) could possibly have an adverse effect on retail sales. At the time, it was considered bad form for retailers to display Christmas decorations or have "Christmas" sales before the celebration of Thanksgiving. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more. So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month. In short, this is why Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of every month -- not the last Thursday.
The new date for Thanksgiving caused a lot of confusion. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools who had planned vacations and tests now had to reschedule. Thanksgiving had been a big day for football games, as it is today, so the game schedule had to be examined. Political opponents of FDR and many others questioned the President's right to change the holiday and stressed the breaking of precedent and disregard for tradition. Many believed that changing a cherished holiday just to appease businesses was not a sufficient reason for change. Atlantic City's mayor derogatorily called November 23 as "Franksgiving."
The plan encountered immediate opposition. Alf Landon, Roosevelt's Republican challenger in the preceding election, called the declaration "another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt's] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out... instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler." While not all critics were political opponents of the president, most parts of New England (then a Republican stronghold relative to the rest of the nation) were among the most vocal areas. James Frasier, the chairman of the selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts (the commonly alleged location of the first Thanksgiving holiday) "heartily disapproved".
Before 1939, the president annually announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation and then governors followed the president in officially proclaiming the same day as Thanksgiving for their state. In 1939, many governors did not agree with FDR's decision to change the date and refused to follow him. The country became split on which Thanksgiving they should observe. Twenty-three states followed FDR's change and declared Thanksgiving to be November 23. Twenty-three other states disagreed with FDR and kept the traditional date for Thanksgiving as November 30. Two states, Colorado and Texas, decided to honor both dates.
This idea of two Thanksgiving days split some families, because not everyone had the same day off work.
Did It Work?
Though the confusion caused many frustrations across the country, the question remained as to whether the extended
season caused people to spend more, thus helping the economy in a state of depression. The
answer was no. Businesses reported that the spending was approximately
the same, but the distribution of the shopping was changed. For those
states who celebrated the earlier Thanksgiving date, shopping was
evenly distributed throughout the season. For those states that kept
the traditional date, businesses experienced a bulk of shopping in the
last week before Christmas.
In 1940, FDR again announced Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday of the month. This time, 31 states followed him with the earlier date and 17 kept the traditional date. Confusion over two Thanksgivings continued.
Lincoln had established the Thanksgiving holiday to bring the country together, but the confusion over the date change was tearing it apart. On December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November. Problem solved.
In the 1940 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon Holiday Highlights, directed by Tex Avery, the introduction to a segment about Thanksgiving shows the holiday falling on two different dates, one "for Democrats" and one a week later "for Republicans."
The competing dates for Thanksgiving are parodied in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (and the inspiration for this blog post when I questioned what the joke was in reference to). Many segments of the film are preceded by shots of a calendar with a visual symbol of the given holiday. For November, an animated turkey is shown running back and forth between the third and fourth Thursdays, finally shrugging its shoulders in confusion.
In the 1940 Three Stooges comedy No Census, No Feeling, Curly makes mention of the Fourth of July being in October. When Moe questions him, Curly replies, "You never can tell. Look what they did to Thanksgiving!"