Then&Now: For Three Years, the U.S. Had Two Thanksgivings (It Didn’t Go Well)
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln began the custom of proclaiming a General Day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. The tradition remained until 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt moved it up a week, and the country lost its mind.
Roosevelt’s reasoning for the switch resulted from Lew Hahn, Director of the Retail Dry Goods Association, warning Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins a few months earlier of the detrimental effect Thanksgiving’s date of Nov 30 would have on the Christmas shopping season. In 1939, it was considered “bad form” for retailers to set out Christmas decorations or sales before Thanksgiving. The late date would shorten the vital retail sales many merchants counted on, and the country was still climbing its way out of the Great Depression.
It was an easy fix for Roosevelt, or so he thought. Back then, Thanksgiving was designated by a Presidential Proclamation. Roosevelt simply proclaimed Nov 23, 1939, as Thanksgiving, a week earlier than tradition. He made the change on Aug 15 of that year.
Criticism was immediate, sharp, and political. Republican Alf Landon savaged the Democratic Roosevelt’s economic move as “another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt's] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out... instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler."
Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire suggested Roosevelt might as well abolish winter while he was at it. The Republican mayor of Atlantic City, Charles D. White, dubbed the early date "as 'Franksgiving,' in honor of our President."
The short notice affected the holiday plans of millions. The change caused problems for college registrars, schedulers, and calendar events, with the holiday break suddenly moving up a week. Manufacturing production schedules were upended. Travel and holiday plans across the country were thrown into turmoil.
The New York Times reported that upon hearing of the change, "most football managers were too dumbfounded for any comment other than expressions of amazement." Some warned that game attendance could fall by as much as half.
As a result, 23 states and the District of Columbia celebrated Roosevelt’s non-traditional date of Nov 23. Another 22 states held to the traditional Nov 30 date. Three states observed Thanksgiving on both days.
The confusion was a comedic goldmine. In the 1940 Three Stooges short film No Census, No Feeling, Curly mentions the Fourth of July being in October. When Moe questions him, Curly replies, "You never can tell. Look what they did to Thanksgiving!" The competing dates for Thanksgiving were also parodied in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. In the film, a November calendar appears on which an animated turkey jumps back and forth between the two weeks until he gives up and shrugs his shoulders at the audience.
A poem from the Oct 14, 1939, Saturday Evening Post reads,
For practical reasons, Thanksgiving’s been changed,
So I’m thinking of pulling a fast one
By changing my birthday, on account of it comes
Too soon after the last one.
Oddly enough, Roosevelt had already declared he would proclaim the following year’s (1940’s) Thanksgiving for Nov 21, a week earlier than tradition. When the holiday arrived that year, 32 states and D.C. observed the earlier date, and 16 celebrated the later date. The same was held for the next year, 1941.
The earlier date was referred to as the “Democratic Thanksgiving,” followed a week later by the “Republican Thanksgiving.”
After a Commerce Department survey found no benefit for retail sales with the earlier date, Roosevelt signed into law a joint resolution of Congress designating the fourth Thursday in November of each year as Thanksgiving. (He signed the resolution on Nov 26, 1941, the day before that year’s “Republican Thanksgiving”).
The following year, 1942, all but eight states observed the national holiday. The reason was that in the midst of World War II, many regions skipped some holidays. It wasn’t until after the war in 1945 that the entire country celebrated together.