Thanksgiving Day has long been remembered as a day when family and friends put differences aside to come together and celebrate with good food and fellowship. In our cultural memory, pilgrims, football, and turkeys dominate our thoughts about this late November day, yet it was not that long ago when the holiday was hotly contested across political party lines. The holiday that today symbolizes fellowship and goodwill stood as a divisive issue that split families, states, and the country during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. Though long forgotten in modern memory, for several years in the late 1930s and early 40s the United States faced a cultural crisis of when to celebrate the holiday due to a spontaneous decision from President Roosevelt in 1939.
James Frazier, the chairman of the selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts, was beset with an odd dilemma in November of 1939. As the leader of the local government, he faced an assault on the town’s heritage from the U.S. president that struck at the town’s rich Thanksgiving tradition. In a divisive and politically charged predicament, Frazier and the other heads of the town had to choose whether to adhere to the president’s wish to celebrate their Thanksgiving heritage on November 23rd, or whether to hold fast to the more traditional date of November 30th for their holiday. Even such a slight change as moving the date was seen as an attack on American history and Plymouth’s Thanksgiving heritage, and the measure was received with hostility across the country.
The scheme to move Thanksgiving was initially proposed by the National Retail Dry Goods Association and the Downtown Association of Los Angeles, whose stores relied on the Christmas shopping season to make their yearly profits. Thanksgiving fell on November 30th in 1939 and business interests worried that this late date would hurt Christmas sales, since it would give consumers less time to buy between Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday. In a hasty decision, Roosevelt endorsed these interests by declaring on October 31st 1939 that Thanksgiving would be moved a week earlier that year, falling on November 23rd, the second to last Thursday of the month instead. With such short notice, the public was enraged. The late shifting of the holiday wreaked havoc with football schedules that had already designated November 30th for rivalry games and ends of seasons, travel and vacation plans for many Americans were disrupted, and calendar companies scrambled to reprint the month of November for 1940. Furthermore, the American people saw it as a troubling cultural shift favoring commercialism over tradition.
As reactions over the edict arose in early November of 1939, they began to take shape along party lines. Democrats and New Deal Republicans saw this as a sound decision geared to stimulate spending in a country still recuperating from years of economic depression. The businesses it was tailored to benefit, such as Gimbel Brothers, openly endorsed the measure as well.
Roosevelt’s Republican detractors, however, already well ruffled by FDR’s penchant for unilateral executive action, saw this as yet another example of the president overstepping his bounds. Alf Landon, the Republican challenger in the 1936 election, denounced the declaration as having “the omnipotence of a Hitler” in its impulsiveness and the mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, declared the new holiday Franksgiving after the vilified Roosevelt. A letter on the subject from an angry South Dakotan reminded the president to “remember, we are not running a Russian or communistic government.” Seeing Roosevelt as an attacker of tradition and anything from a Nazi to a Bolshevik, Republicans revolted at the idea of changing the holiday. The country evenly split in its Thanksgiving celebrations that year, with 23 Democratic states observing Franksgiving on November 23rd, another 23 Republican strongholds waiting to celebrate the more traditional November 30th date, and two more states, Texas and Colorado, observing both days as holidays. James Frazier summed up his town’s sentiments by declaring that “Plymouth, above all towns, being where Thanksgiving originated, should be consistent as of past years and not yield to an unwarranted proclamation.” Frazier and his selectmen in Plymouth “heartily disapproved” of Roosevelt’s attempt to budge their history and maintained the traditional date.
Despite a disapproval rating of over 60%, FDR again made the decision to observe Thanksgiving a week too early in 1940, on November 21st instead of the 28th. Many Republican states in the Northeast still held firm to the more traditional date and the presidential initiative was ridiculed across the country. One shop in Kokomo, Indiana, famously hung a sign during the Christmas shopping season urging shoppers to “do your shopping now—who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.” A Warner Brothers cartoon from 1940 made explicit the political demarcation between Roosevelt’s holiday and the traditional date, showing a Thanksgiving “For Democrats” on the 21st and another “For Republicans” on the 28th in the introductory segment of a holiday reel. A punchy citizen from Shinnston, West Virginia, wrote the president, suggesting that while he was changing days around, he would like to see Sundays changed to Wednesday, a Christmas holiday every Monday, extra pay days every Thursday, and several other outlandish requests.
Finally, by the spring of 1941, data indicating that shifting the holiday had done nothing to stimulate more spending convinced Roosevelt that the controversial change had been for naught. Since calendars for 1941 had already been set, the president saw one more season of Franksgiving out before Congress passed an act in November of 1941 securing the holiday on the fourth Thursday of November thereafter. This was a partial compromise, since it eliminated the possibility of Thanksgiving falling on a fifth Thursday but also rejected Roosevelt’s push for an earlier date.
Of all of Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, his push for an earlier, commercially favorable Thanksgiving holiday was one of the only measures he openly acknowledged as a failure, and the only one revoked with his approval. FDR learned a truth about people and their heritage with his efforts to change Thanksgiving. Even a small alteration, such as a date change, can and did illicit violent reaction from the public, who saw it as an assault not just on a calendar date but on their way of life. Frazier, the town fathers of Plymouth, and the American people stood for tradition with a stubborn tenacity that behooves their Puritan predecessors. The heritage of Thanksgiving and its Plymouth roots was too daunting a bulwark to shift in any way, regardless of party politics or commercial interests. Happy