The Great Thanksgiving Debate

A lot of folks have expressed a bit of trepidation when it comes to conversations at the Thanksgiving table this year.  Many families have members who were split during the presidential election and emotions are still running high in the the wake of it.  Thanksgiving Day is no stranger to controversial conversations, though.  The country was split on another issue about 80 years ago.  The issue: What day should Thanksgiving Day be on?

Many people know that Thanksgiving became a nationally recognized holiday under Abraham Lincoln, even though it had been celebrated long before that.  Since 1863, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday of November.  In 1939, however, Franklin Roosevelt shook things up.

In 1939 there were five Thursdays in November, making the last Thursday the last day of the month.  FDR moved Thanksgiving up one week, from November 30 to November 23.  His reason?  Retailers didn’t want a shortened Christmas shopping season.

Opponents of the new holiday date called it “Franksgiving.”   Calendar printers took the news better than expected, but college football coaches were upset because many of them had games scheduled for November 30, which would now be playing to weekday crowds, instead of swollen holiday crowds.  Due to the rules of some athletic conferences, some games would be played in front of empty seats or skipped altogether.

Comedy radio shows such as Jack Benny used the confusion over Thanksgiving as a source of their jokes.  A Merrie Melodies cartoon opened with a bit about its holiday show airing twice, once for Democrats and again a week later for Republicans.  The Three Stooges got in on the action when Curly talked about celebrating the Fourth of July in October.  When asked about it by Moe, Curly quipped, “You never can tell. Look what they did to Thanksgiving!”

One of Roosevelt’s political rivals, Alf Landon, even likened the president to a certain fascist leader of the time, saying, “If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken in working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

The states themselves were split on the new holiday dates.  By late October of that year, 22 states decided to accept the new holiday and 23 (including the entirety of New England) decided to stick with the traditional date.  Colorado and Texas decided to go all in and celebrate both days and poor Mississippi hadn’t yet decided which way to go.  In 1940, 32 states (and Washington DC) celebrated Thanksgiving on the new date, but 16 states decided to celebrate “Republican Thanksgiving” on the last Thursday.

Roosevelt stuck with the new Thanksgiving schedule the following year, but then made a surprise change in 1941, announcing that Thanksgiving would go back to the last Friday in November the following year.  Unfortunately for the burdened calendar industry, it was too late for them to change the date on their calendars.

By the end of 1941, Thanksgiving was officially slated for the fourth Thursday i nThanksgiving, whether it was the last day of the month or not.  The reason?  The expected shopping boost failed to materialize.  Most states were satisfied with this move, although Texas didn’t adopt the new Thanksgiving guidelines until 1956.

So if conversation at the table takes an ugly turn as your uncle and your brother-in-law start debating on what will actually make America great again, politely interrupt them and tell them about the great Thanksgiving Debate from eight decades ago.

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