Thanksgiving: Mere mention of the word conjures images of turkey, stuffing, green beans, and pie. For some it might bring to mind Pilgrims, Native Americans, and the Massachusetts Bay area. Moreover, for others, Thanksgiving means parade floats, football, and turkey-induced comas.
Americans celebrate the official national holiday of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in the month of November. Seems easy to remember, right? Well, if you lived between 1939 and 1941, you may have celebrated Thanksgiving on two separate Thursdays…or not at all! The tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on a Thursday dates back to the Massachusetts Bay colonies and was technically considered a post-harvest celebration. Colonists planned their harvest celebration to coincide with events already scheduled on Thursdays; these days (often-called Lecture Day) involved lectures, sermons, and church meetings. The Pilgrim and Native American version of the first Thanksgiving is traced back to 1621 when the governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, invited local Native Americans to partake in a three-day festival celebrating a bountiful harvest season. From here, the tradition of Thanksgiving took off throughout New England during the remainder of the 1600s but was not declared a national celebration until 1777 following a victory at the Battle of Saratoga during the American Revolution.
George Washington was the first United States President to pronounce a national observance of Thanksgiving and mandated it fall on November 26. In 1789, this day fell on a Tuesday rather than Thursday. From 1879 until 1863, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on whichever day November 26th occurred. In 1863, under President Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving moved to the last Thursday in the month of November and continued as such until 1939, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt shook things up. Before 1939, every sitting president made a yearly proclamation as to when Thanksgiving would fall. Moreover, each of the presidents from 1863 to 1939 declared Thanksgiving to fall on the last Thursday of November. Until FDR, that is.
In 1939, there were five Thursdays in the month of November so Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would fall on the second to last Thursday of that year. He did so, not because he wanted to incite anger, because if Thanksgiving fell on the last Thursday that year there would be fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Remember in 1939, FDR was working on bringing the American economy back from the Great Depression. Therefore, in 1939 Roosevelt declared Thanksgiving would be officially recognized one week earlier, on November 23. The move not only infuriated smaller business retailers but the mass American people as well; think about having to reschedule football games, parades, pageants all one whole week earlier (not to mention the calendars that had to be reprinted!). Roosevelt stood firm for the next two years, declaring Thanksgiving would fall on the next to last Thursday in November.
Many Americans either refused to acknowledge the new holiday or celebrated twice for the following two years. It was not until November 26, 1941 that he repealed his attempts to change the national holiday and declared that Thanksgiving would fall on the fourth Thursday of the month, regardless of how many Thursdays are in November. In an attempt to curb the potential of future presidents repeating what Roosevelt attempted, Congress decreed that Thanksgiving will always fall on the last Thursday of the month on October 6, 1941. However, the Senate amended the resolution to have Thanksgiving fall on the fourth Thursday of November, in order to account for years with 5 Thursdays in November. On December 26, 1941 Roosevelt signed the amended resolution and established the fourth Thursday of November as the official Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.
Don’t believe us about the frustration and anger FDR caused? Click here to read some of the letters President Roosevelt received concerning his decision to move Thanksgiving!
Pleck, Elizabeth. “The Making of The Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in The United States.” Journal of Social History 32.4 (1999): 773. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.
Kirkpatrick, Melanie. “Happy Franksgiving: How FDR Tried, and Failed, to Change a National Holiday.” The Wall Street Journal 24 Nov. 2009. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.