By Larry DeBoer
Here’s a recipe for partisan controversy, from 1939.
Ingredient one: It was traditional for the president of the United States to declare a day of Thanksgiving, and then for the governors of the states to schedule the holiday. The president always declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. It was listed on the 1939 calendars for that day, and family gatherings and football games already were scheduled.
Ingredient two: It was the end of the Great Depression, but they didn’t know that in 1939. They knew that the unemployment rate was still above 10 percent. The economy was trying to recover from the 1937-38 recession, the recession in the midst of the Depression.
Ingredient three: Lots of retailers knew that no one started their Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving. There’s a reason that Santa shows up at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade.
Ingredient four: One or two years in every seven there are five Thursdays in November. That was true in 1939. Retailers feared that the late Thanksgiving would keep shoppers from buying all they normally would. Sales would be down. Recovery would be delayed.
So retailers approached President Franklin Roosevelt with a proposal. Extend the holiday shopping season. Aid the recovery from the Depression. Declare a day of Thanksgiving for the fourth Thursday in November, not the fifth.
On August 14, 1939, he announced that Thanksgiving would be on the 23rd of November, not the 30th. Controversy ensued. Traditionalists were outraged. Football coaches were aghast. Senator Bridges of New Hampshire sniped that the president should just abolish winter. That November, 22 states celebrated “New Deal” Thanksgiving on the 23rd, 23 states celebrated “Republican” Thanksgiving on the 30th, and three bipartisan states observed both days.
There were only four November Thursdays in 1940. But calendar-makers asked, and on August 30, 1939, President Roosevelt said that Thanksgiving in 1940 would be on the third Thursday, not the fourth.
There was a presidential election in 1940. The Republican candidate for president, Indiana’s Wendell Willkie, came out for the traditional last day of November. Willkie lost, and maybe that’s why 32 governors went with New Deal Thanksgiving in 1940, the third Thursday of November.
New governors and state legislatures took office in 1941, though, and that year some states switched. Six states that had been early moved back to the traditional last Thursday. Five states that had been traditional went early. And several state legislatures passed laws setting one date or the other.
It’s heartening to know that sometimes, public policy is made based on evidence. The Department of Commerce had studied the date change, and found that Christmas sales were unaffected. So in May 1941 the president said that the experiment had not worked, and that Thanksgiving would be on the fourth and last Thursday in 1942.
In December 1941, the U.S. Congress passed a law setting the fourth Thursday in November as the national Thanksgiving Day, every year. The controversy was settled.
But it wasn’t. There were four Thursdays in November in 1942, and again in 1943, but five Thursdays in 1944. Many people had read the law as setting the traditional day — the last Thursday — and they were shocked when the attorney general of the United States pointed out that the law said “fourth,” not “last.” In 1944, six states still celebrated Thanksgiving on the fifth and last Thursday of November.
Confusion lingered. The governor of New York felt the need to remind people that Thanksgiving was the fourth Thursday as late as 1956. Some calendars still had it wrong. And Texas celebrated two Thanksgivings that year.
This holiday season you can catch an artifact of the Thanksgiving controversy, in the classic movie “Holiday Inn” with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Fred dances with firecrackers. Bing sings “White Christmas.” A short cartoon introduces each holiday. For Thanksgiving, it’s a turkey hopping back and forth between the third and fourth Thursdays, looking confused. Amuse (or annoy) your family and friends with the explanation.
This year, Thanksgiving Day was the fourth Thursday in November. It’s not the third Thursday, and it’s not the last Thursday. A heated partisan debate ended with compromise. Maybe that’s something to be thankful for.
Larry DeBoer is professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.