Thanksgiving is intended to be a day for gratitude. It is a time to take a break from the frenetic pace of life and reflect on the blessings we have received from the Lord. It’s hard to imagine how a day such as that could be a cause of consternation and resentment. It’s even harder to imagine how a day intended for thankfulness could generate so much bitterness that in one year we had to have two Thanksgivings.
The first Thanksgiving was a spontaneous affair. The three-day event in October 1621, was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. The menu included lobster and rabbit, but not turkey.
It wasn’t until 1863 that Thanksgiving became a federal holiday. President Abraham Lincoln closed all government offices on November 28, 1863, with an official proclamation:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
For the next 76 years, it fell to the president to issue a proclamation, declaring a day of thanksgiving. It was not a fixed holiday, and it could be set on whatever day the president fancied. Out of respect for Lincoln’s original proclamation, however, it was always observed on the last Thursday in November.
The United States was deep into the Great Depression in 1939. The National Retail Dry Goods Association and other business advocates had been lobbying the White House for years to move Thanksgiving ahead by a week. This would lengthen the Christmas shopping season and hopefully provided a much-needed boost to sales. Despite his reservations, Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed. His proclamation that year declared Thursday, November 23 — the third Thursday of the month — as the day of Thanksgiving.
The change was received with mixed feelings. Businesses were thrilled, but the average citizen was confused and irritated. The president’s proclamation came at the end of October, giving little time to make the adjustments. Football games that had been scheduled for November 30 had to be rescheduled. Families traveling for the holiday didn’t know whether to change their plans. Calendar manufacturers were furious, since their calendars had all been printed for that year and the next, assuming the last Thursday of the month would continue to be the holiday. Schools had already scheduled vacations, and students and parents did not know whether school would be open on the 23rd, the 30th, neither, or both.
Roosevelt’s break with tradition prompted some to call the day Franksgiving in his honor. Others were quick to suggest he make a few more changes. Shelby O. Bennett of Shinnston, West Virginia, wrote,
“Mr. President: I see by the paper this morning where you want to change Thanksgiving Day to Nov. 23, of which I heartily approve. Thanks. Now there are some things that I would like done and would appreciate your approval: 1. Have Sunday changed to Wednesday. 2. Have Monday’s to be Christmas. 3. Have it strictly against the will of God to work on Tuesday.”
When the 1942 movie Holiday Inn was released, the confusion about the holiday’s date can be seen in the following video where a turkey keeps running back and forth between two dates on the calendar, before finally giving up.
Not all responses were as light-hearted. Most states had always followed the federal example and closed state government offices on the same day as their federal counterparts. In defiance to the president, however, some governors declared that regardless of whatever practice would be followed at the federal level, as far as their states were concerned, November 30 was the day of Thanksgiving. Twenty-three states observed Thanksgiving Day on November 23rd, twenty-three states celebrated on November 30th, and Texas and Colorado declared both Thursdays to be holidays.
And so was born the year of two Thanksgivings. Depending on where you lived, you might have one day or two days to observe a day of gratitude. Some families had members who had one day off while the other members had the other day off. The result for them was a year of no Thanksgiving.
Roosevelt, recognizing the lateness of his 1939 proclamation was problematic, was quick to let everyone know his intention for Thanksgiving in 1940 to likewise be on the third Thursday. In response, 32 states’ governments and the District of Columbia followed suit by observing the holiday on November 21, while 16 states chose the latter date, which many called the “Republican” Thanksgiving of the 28th. In 1941, the same practice continued.
A 1941 Commerce Department survey found no significant expansion of retail sales due to the change. By that point, Congress got involved and passed a joint resolution declaring the fourth Thursday of November as “Thanksgiving Day.” Roosevelt signed the resolution into law on November 26, 1941. From that point forward, Americans were free to give thanks on Thanksgiving, rather than bicker about which date to do so.
Read more fun facts about holidays.
Read more fun facts about Franklin D. Roosevelt.