In 1939, half of America celebrated Thanksgiving and the other half celebrated “Franksgiving”.
To stimulate the economy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving by a week to create an additional seven days of Christmas shopping. Talk about a New Deal.
Turkey Day traditionalists have cried foul. “We heartily disapprove,” said the chairman of the annual celebration commemorating the harvest festival of 1621 by pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth, Mass., Which became Thanksgiving. “We here in Plymouth hold this day as sacred. (Members of the Wampanoag Nation tend to see it differently.)
Critics dubbed Roosevelt’s vacation “Frankfurt Action”. The issue has divided Americans along political lines. Alf Landon, the Republican whom Roosevelt defeated in the 1936 election, accused FDR of acting arbitrarily “with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”
But the business world was excited about the change. The earlier date “will spread the ‘start early’ movement and benefit the customer, the clerk and the retailer,” said the president of the Merchants and Manufacturers Association. The chairman of Lord & Taylor predicted that the change could generate up to $ 1 billion in additional business, the equivalent of nearly $ 20 billion today.
Thanksgiving had been celebrated primarily on the last Thursday in November since President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday in 1863. In 1939, November had five Thursdays, and the last, November 30, left little time for shopping season. of Christmas. . (Back then, retailers dared not start promoting the Christmas season until after Thanksgiving.)
In August 1939, Roosevelt announced he was moving Thanksgiving to November 23 at the behest of retailers, who said the later date left too few shopping days before Christmas. The president said the idea sounded “silly” but decided to leave it to traders, the Associated Press reported.
The late announcement took its toll with planned Thanksgiving events such as rivalry football games, parades, church services and school closings. “College catalogs are already printed. Class times are organized, ”the president of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars telegraphed to Roosevelt. Students will end up skipping classes on both vacation weekends, he complained.
Even some turkey vendors protested the short notice. “Your contemplated change will hurt many producers and disrupt the marketing plans of processors and distributors,” said the president of the National Poultry, Butter and Egg Association.
The actors had something new to chew on. On Jack Benny’s popular radio show, Benny’s wife, Mary Livingstone, read a poem: “Thanksgiving, you’re a little confused, aren’t you, kid?
Public opinion has divided along political lines. A Gallup poll showed Democrats favored the move from 52% to 48%, while Republicans opposed it from 79% to 21%. Overall, Americans opposed the change from 62 to 38.
Many GOP governors have pledged to honor the traditional Thanksgiving date. The result was two Thanksgiving: 23 states and the District of Columbia opted for November 23, while 22 states stayed true to November 30. Three states – Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas – observed both dates.
Thousands of protest letters have poured into the White House. But Roosevelt stuck to his wands. On November 23, he had dinner on Thanksgiving turkey in Warm Springs, Georgia. The president’s remarks at the dinner reflected the day’s headlines about 30 British sailors killed when their battleship struck a German mine in the Thames during the growing European war with the Nazis. Germany. “Well, we have a war,” Roosevelt said. “I hope that by next spring we won’t have any more.
Thanksgiving celebrations were held across the country. In New York City, over a million people attended Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, led by a 15-meter Santa Claus. The Philadelphia Toyland Parade drew 500,000 people to see 25 groups, 1,000 clowns and African-American movie star and dancer Bill Robinson, “who danced along the parade route as a special guest of honor. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
In Hollywood, gossip columnist Louella Parsons reported that actor “Ronnie” Reagan was grateful to have landed the lead role in the new movie “For the Rich They Sing”, which she described as “a comedy to political trend “.
Three of the four Republican governors at the New England conference at the Statler Hotel in Boston dined on turkey. When Governor Lewis Barrows of Maine received a carving knife, he replied, “No, thank you. I brought a can of sardines with me.
Long before Black Friday, merchants ran Christmas ads on the Friday after Thanksgiving started. In the Washington Post, the Woodward & Lothrop department store promoted “Christmas Cherishables” as a “Christmas Party in Paris” fragrance. In New York City, Macy’s portrayed Santa Claus in an advertisement for family games, such as a “talking table” called the Voodoo.
FDR’s first turkey day saw some early Christmas shopping. “Christmas sales kick off in week one,” a Post headline said.
On November 30, the rest of the country observed a relatively low-key Thanksgiving. Plymouth held its traditional Thanksgiving ceremony, which officials said was designed to “save the day from exploitation and desecration.”
The Double Thanksgiving continued into 1940, after Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term. This time, 32 states have joined the early observance. The political division continued: an animated film by Warner Bros. “Merrie Melodies” showed a Thanksgiving calendar marked Nov. 21 for Democrats and Nov. 28 for Republicans.
In late 1941, after the United States entered World War II, Congress approved and Roosevelt signed a proclamation to make Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, where it remains today, as of 1942. Roosevelt told a press conference that he was influenced by government economic reports showing that the first Thanksgiving didn’t boost total Christmas sales much after all.
“Waving around a handful of statistics, charts, reports and commentary,” the International News Service reported, “the president admitted bringing the Thanksgiving date forward by a week has been a complete turkey.”
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Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political editor at the Wall Street Journal.