So here we are, it’s Black Friday, and we are all recovering from food coma, or our in-laws, or perhaps you are contemplating hitting the fridge for some leftovers. Well, make yourself a turkey sandwich and pull up a chair to read all about “Franksgiving.” Not familiar with the holiday? It’s not well known; in fact it didn’t last very long, only about three years. In August of 1939, our neighbor from Hyde Park and the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was enjoying his summer getaway at his family’s property in Campobello when he held a press conference. He wished to announce that he had decided to change the date of Thanksgiving beginning immediately, and the change would be permanent.
When FDR informed the press of his decision, one could only imagine the looks on the faces of the journalist who listened and jotted down the President’s words and reasoning. He proclaimed that since Thanksgiving was on the 30th (there were five Thursdays in November that year) that would only leave folks with 20 days for Christmas shopping. He insisted that by moving Thanksgiving to the 23rd, shoppers would have more time to shop, and that overall, this would be better for what was still a struggling economy. Modern readers should keep in mind that in the 1930s, merchants didn’t put out Christmas goods until after Thanksgiving (not like today when we see Christmas stuff in stores by Halloween).
FDR had claimed that he had been hounded by businessmen since he was elected to make Thanksgiving earlier in order to improve sales. Being the historian that he was he also informed the press that Thanksgiving was not a national holiday and there were no laws proclaiming what day it should be. For most of American history, the President would select a day for a general thanksgiving to be had. It was President Abraham Lincoln who in 1863 proclaimed that the last Thursday of November would be a national day of Thanksgiving. But FDR went on to say that the day was in fact, “nothing sacred.”
This decision was hard to swallow with people from all different backgrounds, everybody from the faithful, to calendar makers, to college football fans. In Plymouth Massachusetts, there was upheaval as they could not believe that the President had said that the day was not sacred. The Rev. Karl Knudsen of Plymouth’s Church of the Pilgrimage told the New York Times his thoughts on the matter, that it was a “calloused attack on a religious tradition” and that “the sacred has given way to the secular forces of life.” There were several big college football games scheduled for Thanksgiving, and the change disturbed announcements and lead to confused and annoyed fans and even coaches. Bill Ackerman of the University of California asked “Perhaps, the President can oblige by changing Saturday’s to some other day.”
FDR celebrated Thanksgiving in Warm Springs Georgia in 1939, as he usually did, with all of the children who were recovering from polio at the medical center that he created. Georgia was one of the states that went along with the President’s plan. The country was clearly split on the matter as 23 states used the new date, 22 decided to stick with tradition, and Texas, Colorado, and Maine decided to have two Thanksgivings! Just like today, comedians of the era decided this was good material. The Three Stooges referenced it in their short film “No census, No feeling” where in one scene, Curly believes that Independence Day in October, claiming that “you never can tell; look what they did to Thanksgiving!”
Finally, a Joint Resolution was passed by Congress in 1941 moving the date back to the fourth Thursday of November. A study later determined that there had been no economic increase as a result of the change. FDR, in his typical style, later joked about the ordeal, “Two years ago, or three years ago, I discovered I was particularly fond of turkey! So we started two Thanksgivings. I don’t know how many we ought to have next year. I’m open to suggestion.”
For further reading, check out Thanksgiving: The holiday at the heart of the American experience by Melanie Kirkpatrick.