The year was 1939, and American businesses, still reeling from the previous year’s recession, decided they wanted an extra week of Christmas shopping. The solution? They asked President Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up a week.
Roosevelt complied — and confusion and outrage ensued.
Calendar makers were enraged, families ended up celebrating on different days from one another, and some accused the president of embracing communism.
Within three years, Congress had had enough and passed legislation officially setting Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November.
Today, the president’s role in Thanksgiving has been reduced to ceremonial. He pardons a turkey, the White House releases the presidential menu, and that’s it. But for decades, presidents officially set the date when Thanksgiving would be celebrated, though they generally stuck to tradition by setting aside the final Thursday in November. That meant it could be anywhere from Nov. 24 to Nov. 30.
But in 1939, with the Great Depression lingering and the previous year’s recession still biting, businesses felt Nov. 30 was too late, in an age when it was considered bad form to begin advertising holiday deals before Thanksgiving. They petitioned Roosevelt to move the holiday to Nov. 23 instead, to give them the extra week of shopping, and he agreed.
“The stores and people who work, retail people, etc., are very anxious to have it set forward and I checked up and it seems to be the only holiday which is not provided for by law, nationally,” he told reporters in an offhand remark at an August news conference. “I am going to step it up a whole week and make it not the last Thursday but the Thursday before the last Thursday in November.”
But Roosevelt’s comment was not just offhand. The White House had scripted the announcement, deciding that a casual mention in a news conference was the right strategy.
A memo from top presidential aide Lowell Mellett, preserved at the National Archives’ Roosevelt Library and Museum, revealed that Roosevelt and his advisers even considered moving Thanksgiving to a Monday, but church groups objected.
Reaction was swift and generally unkind.
Critics dubbed the revised holiday as “Franksgiving,” calendar makers said they would have to scrap several years’ worth of inventory, and some public school systems refused to budge on their class schedules, meaning some families were unable to celebrate the holiday together.
“We want to make this country better for our posterity, and you must remember we are not running a Russia or communistic government,” Robert S. Benson and Clarabelle Voight wrote in a letter to the White House. “Between your ideas of running for a third term, and your changing dates of century-old holidays, we believe you have practically lost your popularity.”
Ann Berry, executive director at Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass., said the pressure on Roosevelt to move up the date must have been intense.
“You have to think about the fact that it was coming off the Depression and trying to stimulate the economy,” she said.
Despite the outrage expressed by traditionalists, Ms. Berry noted that Thanksgiving is one American holiday that is defined as much by change as by continuity.
“The whole holiday harks back to events here in Plymouth in 1621, but has become something entirely different. It’s changed over time — it’s part of our national story, but it has moved very much away from where it originally started,” she said.
Roosevelt’s move lasted three years, but by 1941 Congress and the country had had enough. Acting with the kind of determination today’s lawmakers can only dream of, Congress quickly passed a bill declaring the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
The great American holiday has spawned other controversies, including a long-running debate over who deserves credit for the first Thanksgiving.
Berkeley Plantation in Virginia says it beat the Massachusetts Pilgrims by a couple of years, and residents of El Paso, Texas, and St. Augustine, Fla., say their communities were holding celebratory feasts decades before that.
But Ms. Berry, at Pilgrim Hall Museum, said those other Thanksgivings were days of prayer and, most likely, of fasting — “more of a solemn occasion.” The Thanksgiving celebrated across America today most closely resembles the Massachusetts settlers’ harvest feast of 1621.
“There are a lot of places around the country that put in a claim as having the first Thanksgiving. But if you’re talking about the holiday, the national observance that we have on Thursday, the roots of that holiday go back to the Pilgrims in 1621,” she said.