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Once upon a time, America had two Thanksgivings. It did not go well

Franklin Roosevelt carves a turkey on Thanksgiving 1933
President Franklin D. Roosevelt carves a turkey on Thanksgiving 1933.
(CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/Erie Times New/TNS)

FDR decided in 1939 to move the holiday to goose holiday retail sales. It split the country in half.

Think America is divided now? Eighty years ago, the country couldn’t even agree on when to hold Thanksgiving.

The controversy in 1939 split the nation in half, with some states following decades-old tradition and sitting down for turkey on the last Thursday in November, while the others heeded a directive by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and moved the holiday up a week.

In hindsight, the furor may seem overblown — in San Diego, the Union newspaper editorialized against it three times — and its details quaintly humorous. The governor of Maine was so upset he refused to eat turkey at a public event and opened a can of sardines instead.

But then, like now, what people said and did revealed deeper political and cultural fissures about the country’s leadership and its future.

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“What John Smith USA thinks about President Roosevelt’s plan to change Thanksgiving Day pretty much depends on what John Smith thinks of President Roosevelt,” pollster George Gallup wrote in an introduction to a nationwide survey that showed Democrats (the president’s party) slightly in favor of the move and Republicans heavily opposed.

In 1939, with the nation still pulling itself out of the Great Depression, the argument wasn’t really about which day was best for serving up pumpkin pie, just as today’s polarized partisans aren’t really squabbling over whether to wear coronavirus face masks.

They’re mostly concerned about where they believe America is headed. A lot of hopes and fears get wrapped up in that.

It may be instructive as well to know that federal leaders worked out the Thanksgiving Day problem, which is why it’s now pinned to the fourth Thursday in November, and that Americans eventually found a way to laugh together at what they’d been through.

When the movie “Holiday Inn” was released in 1942, it included an animated sequence of a turkey standing on a November calendar, then walking back and forth as Thanksgiving moves from one Thursday to another, and eventually raising its upturned hands in exhausted confusion.

How it started

Thanksgiving has its roots in America’s colonial days, and for a long time it floated around the calendar, landing on a particular day and month based on governmental whims about the need to pause for reflections of gratitude. Some parts of the country were more devoted to the holiday than others.

Sarah Hale, a prominent magazine editor and writer (the children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is hers), spent years lobbying federal officials to create a national holiday that would fall on the last Thursday in November. She thought it would unify an increasingly splintered country.

In 1863, during the Civil War, she wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, and he soon adopted the plan, seeing it as a way to help “heal the wounds of the nation,” as he noted in an official proclamation.

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And there it sat, with a couple of exceptions, for the next 76 years.

In 1939, November had five Thursdays, which meant Thanksgiving would arrive on Nov. 30. Early that year, a national retail association asked Roosevelt to move it to Nov. 23, citing the ongoing effects of the Great Depression.

The group knew that many Americans back then didn’t start shopping for Christmas until after Thanksgiving, which (with stores mostly closed on Sundays) left about 20 days for holiday purchases.

Public health experts worry the usual holiday gatherings could have deadly consequences as COVID-19 surges

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“With a four-week shopping period before Christmas instead of three, the prospects for a strong advance in business activities during the rest of 1939 are considerably enhanced,” the association’s top executive said.

Roosevelt had rejected a similar request six years earlier, during his first year in office, but this time he agreed. He announced the change in August of 1939. The backlash was swift and biting.

Maine Gov. Lewis O. Barrows: “This is the most foolish of all the foolish things ever proposed by the president.”

Vermont Gov. George Aiken: “If the president thinks the two holidays are too near together, it’s a wonder he didn’t change Christmas. We aren’t very quick to change here in Vermont unless it means real progress. I don’t know what can be gained by shifting Thanksgiving Day.”

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In San Diego, a Union editorial asked, “What about the period between Christmas and the New Year? Suppose some of the president’s unidentified advisers suggest that a week is too short a time to prepare for the January bills and a hangover. Suppose they suggest a wider span between Valentine Day and Washington’s birthday. Suppose they decide that Labor Day, which popularly means the end of summer, still is too hot to march in a parade. What if they decide that Flag Day and the Fourth of July are too close together?

“There are all sorts of speculations as to what the president could try to do, but if the Thanksgiving threat is an indication of what would follow, he is treading thin ice.”

‘Franksgiving’

The uproar went on for another two months, and when FDR issued his official Thanksgiving proclamation in late October, officially moving the holiday to Nov. 23, the country found itself split.

The proclamation was binding on the District of Columbia and federal employees, but not the states, and almost two-dozen — including California — went along. A like number kept the holiday where it was. (A couple states decided to recognize both options.)

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In a dig at Roosevelt, critics called the Nov. 23 date “Franksgiving.” One newspaper in Indiana modified the “Happy Birthday” song and ran these lyrics on the front page:

“Happy Franksgiving to you. Happy Franksgiving to you. Happy Franksgiving, dear misguided who chose today, Happy Franksgiving to you.”

Although California was one of the states that agreed to the change, the Men’s Republican League in San Diego refused to acknowledge it. They gathered instead a week later at the U.S. Grant hotel downtown.

An account of the gathering in the Union described a “running fire of criticism” directed at the president. It quoted the group’s leader, Ben Burnham, reading a suggested preamble to Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving proclamation:

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“I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in order to grab a more perfect headline, break an established precedent, upset domestic tranquility, provide for divided observance, discommode the general bill-of-fare, and secure the blessings of a few New Dealers to myself and my long-promised prosperity, do proclaim…..”

But anger wasn’t the only thing on the menu. Another executive, E.E. Scranton, added some levity. “Changing Thanksgiving to aid Christmas shoppers won’t help the men one bit,” he said. “It is a well-known fact that men always do their shopping on Christmas Eve anyway.”

In 1940, Thanksgiving was again moved up a week, from Nov. 28 to Nov. 21, and this time more of the states went along. But government statistics raised doubts about the rationale for the shift — sales didn’t increase much — and in May of 1941, Roosevelt announced he was bowing to tradition and returning the holiday to the last Thursday of the month, effective the following year.

Wary of what future presidents might do, Congress intervened and passed a compromise law setting Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of the month (which in most years is the last one anyway). Roosevelt signed it on Dec. 26, 1941.

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That was 19 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He and the nation had a different war to worry about.


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