When thinking about how the United States is divided over holiday issues, the manufactured “War on Christmas” is easily the first thing that comes to mind. But back in 1939, the government actually was trying to change a holiday – but that holiday was Thanksgiving.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the powers of his position to change the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the second to last Thursday of November, and “Franksgiving” immediately became a source of public outrage.
In true American fashion, the change was made in the name of capitalism and business. Retail lobbyists convinced Roosevelt that Christmas shopping would be slow in 1939 because Thanksgiving was on Nov. 30, which wouldn’t give Americans long enough to do their after-Thanksgiving shopping. Roosevelt caved and big business had their way with the country’s calendar.
To be fair, Thanksgiving is on a rather arbitrary date. It isn’t some long-standing tradition from immigrant heritage or religious observance. It wasn’t even that old. Thanksgiving didn’t become a federal holiday until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln announced that the nation will regularly observe a day of thanksgiving.
Americans, however, have never been big on people changing their traditions. Just like the politics of today, support for the move was largely split down party lines, but 48 percent of Democrats joined 79 percent of Republicans against the date change, business be damned. There was also another tradition pushing against “Franksgiving”: Thanksgiving football. One college team even threatened to vote Republican if Roosevelt interfered with their football schedules.
For two years the War on Thanksgiving divided the nation. Twenty-three states opted to celebrate on the original date in 1939 – and 16 did in 1940 – while the rest of the Union followed the president’s order. “Two years ago, or three years ago, I discovered I was particularly fond of turkey! So we started two Thanksgivings,” Roosevelt joked on Nov. 29, 1941. “I don’t know how many we ought to have next year. I’m open to suggestion.”
Before the end of 1941, Congress decided it had had enough. They finally united and overcame their differences to pass a law that Thanksgiving must always be on the fourth Thursday of the month. While celebrating around the turkey this year, be sure to thank Congress for officially ending the War on Thanksgiving before it all got too far out of hand.