When FDR Tried to Move Thanksgiving

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies brought about a fundamental shift in America’s political landscape, but there were a few areas where he was not so successful in achieving permanent change. One of these areas was the Supreme Court. Another was Thanksgiving.

Since Abraham Lincoln, American presidents had declared Thanksgiving to be the final Thursday in November. Seventy-five years ago, in 1939, the holiday would have fallen on Nov. 30, an unusual fifth Thursday of the month. In those days, it was considered inappropriate to sell Christmas items before Thanksgiving, but with the late date, there would be less time for gift shopping.

Fred Lazarus, Jr., the founder of the Federated Department Stores (later merged with Macy’s), supposedly convinced FDR to move Thanksgiving a week earlier to extend shopping season in order to help merchants boost profits. Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins also advised the president to change the date.

Although Roosevelt argued the president had the prerogative to choose the date as Thanksgiving was not a national holiday, his decree met fierce opposition. Republicans railed that FDR was disrespecting Lincoln’s legacy. FDR’s proclamation could only be enforced in the District of Columbia and the territories of Hawaii and Alaska, so states had the final say on what day to celebrate. The states were roughly evenly divided between those who would give thanks on FDR’s date or the traditional date. A few states elected to celebrate both.

Nov. 30 became the “Republican Thanksgiving,” while Nov. 23 was the “Democratic Thanksgiving” or “Franksgiving.” But this wasn’t simply a partisan issue. As Melanie Kirkpatrick recounts, Plymouth, Mass., home of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, refused to change the date as did football coaches, including one in the Democratic stronghold of Arkansas who warned, “We'll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football."

The battle over the holiday continued for the next two years as FDR proclaimed Thanksgiving a week earlier. A week earlier in 1940 and 1941 meant celebrating on the third Thursday of the month. However, with most retailers, the intended beneficiaries of the change, disapproving and little evidence indicating an increase in sales, Roosevelt acknowledged his experiment a failure and signed a resolution passed by Congress, designating the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Most states quickly adopted the new federal date, but a few held on to the final Thursday of November even if it was the fifth. By the 1950s, all the states adopted the fourth.

While the president was not able to permanently move Thanksgiving a week early, making the holiday the fourth Thursday prevented the possibility of having the date fall on the occasional fifth Thursday. But FDR would not have to worry if he were around today. The custom to avoid selling Christmas items early is long gone. We may still have Black Friday, but poor Tom Turkey is ignored throughout the month, while people listen to Christmas songs and put up decorations as soon as Halloween is over!

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