Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt's Thanksgiving Day Fiasco

So did you know that in 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to move Thanksgiving Day forward by a week? Rather than allow the holiday to fall on its traditional date, the last Thursday of November, President Roosevelt issued a proclamation declaring that the holiday would instead be celebrated a week earlier.

Why did he make such a seemingly random decision in the midst of the Great Depression? Well, his reason was economic and was intended to extend the Christmas shopping season. According to the Wall Street Journal:

There were five Thursdays in November that year, which meant that Thanksgiving would fall on the 30th. That left just 20 shopping days till Christmas. By moving the holiday up a week to Nov. 23, the president hoped to give the economy a lift by allowing shoppers more time to make their purchases and—so his theory went—spend more money...

In an informal news conference in August announcing his decision, FDR offered a little tutorial on the history of the holiday. Thanksgiving was not a national holiday, he noted, meaning that it was not set by federal law. According to custom, it was up to the president to pick the date every year.

It was not until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln ordered Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November, that that date became generally accepted, Roosevelt explained. To make sure that reporters got his point, he added that there was nothing sacred about the date...


Just as he had done with his controversial "Court Packing" plan of 1937, Roosevelt had badly misjudged public opinion. Outraged protests of his plan began in Plymouth, Massachussetts, the place of the "first Thanksgiving" in 1621, but quickly spread to other circles.

PRESIDENT SHOCKS FOOTBALL COACHES: Many Games are Upset by Thanksgiving Plan, read a banner headline in the New York Times. And even in the staunchly Democratic state of Arkansas, the football coach of Little Ouachita College threatened: 'We'll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.'"

Of course, some collegiate coaches and athletic directors were more diplomatic. In a letter to the president's secretary, Philip Badger, Chairman of the University Board of Athletic Control at New York University wrote:

My dear Mr. Secretary:

I am wondering if you are at liberty at this time to supply me with any information over and above what has appeared in the public press to date regarding the plan of the President to proclaim November 23 as Thanksgiving Day this year instead of November 30.

Over a period of years it has been customary for my institution to play its annual football game with Fordham University at the Yankee Stadium here at New York University on Thanksgiving Day...As you probably know, it has become necessary to frame football schedules three to five years in advance, and for both 1939 and 1940 we had arranged to play our annual football game with Fordham on Thanksgiving Day, with the belief that such day would fall upon the fourth Thursday in November.

Please understand that all of us interested in the administration of intercollegiate athletics realize that there are considerations and problems before the country for solution which are far more important than the schedule problems of intercollegiate athletics. However, some of us are confronted with the problem of readjusting the date of any football contest affected by the President's proposal.


Outside of the collegiate football arena, public sentiments also ran heavily against Roosevelt's plan, as evidenced by a national Gallup poll which found "that 62% of Americans surveyed disapproved of the date change." And, as opposition grew, some state governors "took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential Proclamation."

According to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum:

Some governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place because families that lived in states such as New York did not have the same day off as family members in states such as Connecticut! [And so] family and friends were unable to celebrate the holiday together.

By 1941, most retailers also disapproved of Roosevelt's plan, and even the federal government conceded that the date change had not resulted in any boost in sales. And so, on December 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Joint Resolution 41 making Thanksgiving a national holiday and mandating that it be observed on the fourth Thursday in November of each year.

FAST FACT: According to the Library of Congress, when "Abraham Lincoln was president in 1863, he proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be our national Thanksgiving Day. In 1865, Thanksgiving was celebrated the first Thursday of November, because of a proclamation by President Andrew Johnson, and, in 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant chose the third Thursday for Thanksgiving Day. In all other years, until 1939, Thanksgiving was celebrated as Lincoln had designated, the last Thursday in November."

FOOD FACT: According to the Thanksgiving Timeline compiled by the Library of Congress, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony celebrated the autumn harvest in 1621 with an elaborate three-day feast. Governor William Bradford "invited the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, Massasoit, to join the fifty colonists who had survived the harsh winter. The Native American leader brought ninety of his tribesmen to the feast. The celebration included athletic contests, a military review led by Miles Standish, and a feast on foods such as wild turkeys, duck, geese, venison, lobsters, clams, bass, corn, green vegetables, and dried fruits." In 1841, a doctor by the name of Alexander Young claimed that this harvest celebration was the "First Thanksgiving" and the origin of an American tradition. This interpretation "gained such widespread acceptance that other contenders for the distinction faded into obscurity."