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A Tale of Two Thanksgivings

President Franklin Roosevelt

There was a time when, depending on the state where you lived, the date you celebrated Thanksgiving could be celebrated on a day different than the neighboring state or you could have two recognized Thanksgiving days.

George Washington proclaimed the first Presidential National day of Thanksgiving on 26 November "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

President Abraham Lincoln followed suit in 1863, declaring a general day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November. The date seemed to work well for everyone and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939.

Back in those days, it was considered poor form for retailers to put up Christmas displays or run Christmas sales before Thanksgiving. At the tail-end of the Great Depression, Lew Hahn, General Manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, was afraid that extra week was going to cut into Christmas sales. He requested that President Franklin D. Roosevelt move Thanksgiving to November’s third Thursday in an effort to help boost the economy by providing shoppers and merchants a few extra days to conduct business between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. President Roosevelt agreed and made the decree.

Things quickly became partisan. Several states ignored the presidential proclamation due to tradition or convenience, and others ignored it to snub Roosevelt, a Democrat. Unsurprisingly, support for Roosevelt’s plan broke along ideological lines. A late 1939 Gallup poll reported Democrats favoring the move by a 52% to 48% majority, with Republicans opposing the move, 79% to 21%.

While several states followed FDR’s lead, others balked, with 16 states refusing to honor the calendar shift, leaving the country with dueling Thanksgivings.

In Plymouth Massachusetts, self-described home of the "first Thanksgiving", Chairman of the Board of Selectmen James Frasier, "heartily disapproved". The short-notice change in schedule disrupted vacation plans for millions of Americans. Traditional Thanksgiving day football rivalries between school teams across the nation, were turned upside down.

Angry Americans sent Roosevelt thousands of letters and telegrams about the breach of tradition and their disrupted schedules. An anguished calendar maker from Salem, Ohio, wrote in a letter to the White House that the decision would cause "untold grief" in the industry, since 1939 calendars and many 1940 calendars had already been printed. As anticipated, football schedules were scrambled, leading some coaches to vow to vote Republican. A girl in a New York boarding school wrote to Roosevelt on October 18 that her home state, Republican-governed Connecticut, was celebrating Thanksgiving on the later date, making it impossible to go home for the holiday.

Such proclamations represent little more than the "moral authority" of the Presidency. States were free to do as they pleased. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia observed Thanksgiving day on the non-traditional date, and twenty-two kept Thanksgiving on the 30th. Colorado and Texas did both.

Journalists and politicians invented names to mark the confusion. The mayor of Atlantic City called the new date "Franksgiving," which stuck. Others used the moniker "Democratic Thanksgiving" or "New Deal Thanksgiving," describing it as another example of the president inappropriately flexing his executive powers.

People were still confused a year later. In 1940, a restaurant sent a telegram to the White House: "CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR REELECTION. WHEN SHALL WE SERVE OUR THANKSGIVING TURKEY 21ST? OR 28TH?" Only 32 states ultimately celebrated on the new Thanksgiving date.

Popular comedians of the day got a laugh out of the Franksgiving ruckus including Burns & Allen, and Jack Benny. One 1940 Warner Brothers cartoon shows two Thanksgivings, one “for Democrats” and one a week later “for Republicans.” The Three Stooges short film of the same year has Moe questioning Curly, why he put the fourth of July in October. "You never can tell", he replies. "Look what they did to Thanksgiving!" In the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, an animated scene shows a turkey hopping between two potential dates before giving up with a shrug.

Holiday Inn (1942)

In the end, Franksgiving was a colossal failure. Faced with increasing opposition and after a Commerce Department survey of 200 stores showed no real economic benefit and little difference in Christmas sales between those states observing Franksgiving, and those observing the more traditional date, Roosevelt reversed course just two years later. In the fall of 1941, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution making the last Thursday in November a legal national holiday. The Senate amended the resolution, setting the date as the fourth Thursday, and the House eventually agreed. The holiday was thus returned to the original, traditional date. President Roosevelt signed the measure into law November 26.

The president seemed to find his failed Franksgiving experiment funny. He commented "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."

In 1945, the next year with five November Thursdays, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia reverted to the last Thursday. Texas held out the longest, celebrating its fifth-Thursday Thanksgiving for the last time in 1956.



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