With all of the fuss this year over whether Black Friday should move up to give shoppers some more time to capitalize on deals, it was surprising to see that Thanksgiving itself was actually moved up for just this purpose.
When I return from the holiday weekend, I’m probably going to glance at a calendar and say to myself, “What the … there’s still that much November left?” Somewhere along the way I had the mistaken assumption that Thanksgiving always fell on that last weekend of the month. Well, that was once the case.
Despite its longstanding association with the Pilgrims, the federal holiday as we know it now is largely a creation of two U.S. presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If you really want to be old school you can say you celebrated “Franksgiving” last Thursday and celebrate Thanksgiving this coming Thursday. But good luck getting out of work on that one.
Presidents typically made Thanksgiving proclamations from Lincoln's time on, though Lincoln and Roosevelt arguably made their own proclamations during the most forbidding times in the country. In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln started the modern Thanksgiving tradition by declaring the last Thursday of November to be a national holiday. This celebration went on uninterrupted each year until 1939, when FDR presided over a country slowly rebuilding from economic collapse and Europe was once again at war only 20 years after the peace that formally ended the "War to End All Wars."
It was the economic situation that led to the first shift in how we celebrate Thanksgiving. With the holiday set to fall on Nov. 30, businesses realized that there wouldn’t be much time to capitalize on the Christmas season. People started shopping on Black Friday back then as well, and a Thanksgiving on the last day of the month meant that already hurting stores would miss out on a week of holiday business.
The solution the retailers put forth? Bump Thanksgiving up a week. They had presented FDR with a similar idea in 1933 but turned it down. In 1939, he changed his mind; Thanksgiving, he proclaimed, would be held on Nov. 23 that year.
Not surprisingly, the departure from a 75-year tradition caused some consternation. Calendars were now inaccurate, football games were suddenly marooned in a non-holiday week, family vacation plans were disrupted. Thomas Taggart, the mayor of Atlantic City, was so annoyed by the change that he derisively dubbed the Nov. 23 observance “Franksgiving.”
Confusing things even more was the fact that some states refused to go along with the change, meaning it could be quite difficult or impossible to get together with your family if people lived in states with different observances. In the end, 23 states went along with FDR’s change and 23 refused. Two, Colorado and Texas, decided that two Thanksgivings sounded like fun and had holidays on both Thursdays.
The whole mess resurfaced in November of 1940. Apparently the extra week of business had worked out pretty well, because FDR once again declared Thanksgiving to be on the fourth Thursday rather than the fifth. And once again, several states—17 to be exact—refused to honor the change.
The House sought to end the confusion in October of 1941 by passing a resolution returning Thanksgiving to the Lincoln observance of the last week. The Senate amended it to be on the fourth week, which would put the holiday in the last week of November most years but occasionally grant a bonus week to businesses in years when the month has a fifth Thursday. The House agreed to the amendment, and FDR signed their joint resolution on Dec. 26, 1941.
There's something about the whole scenario that represents both a snapshot of innocence and the determination to keep up some normalcy even in the face of immense challenges. Lincoln started the Thanksgiving holiday when half of the nation didn't recognize federal authority. The Thanksgiving in 1941 took place not long before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent U.S. entry into World War II. On the same day that Roosevelt signed the resolution that still directs Thanksgiving observances today, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed both chambers of Congress in a stirring speech about the common cause and friendship of the British and American peoples.
Assuming you haven’t been going through leftovers non-stop since last week, you probably have enough to get a meal together for Thursday. Whether you call it Lincoln Thanksgiving or Second Thanksgiving, you can try for another feast and reflect on one of the oddities of American history.