Larry: Where is everybody?
Curly: Maybe it's the Fourth of July.
Moe: The Fourth of July in October?
Curly: You never can tell... Look what they did to Thanksgiving!
Dialogue from No Census, No Feeling (1940), starring the Three Stooges
You may think we live in a politically polarized nation today, but not so long ago Americans were so divided over the issue of when to celebrate Thanksgiving Day that there were actually two Thanksgivings each year. As contemporary pundits put it, there was one Thanksgiving for Republicans and one for Democrats. Now that’s some heavy duty political discord.
It all began in the summer of 1939 when Lewis Hahn, general manager of the powerful National Retail Dry Goods Association, wrote to Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins to complain about the calendar. The United States was just pulling itself out of a recession that had badly hurt retail sales in 1937 and 1938, and Hahn was certain that the date of Thanksgiving that year was going to have an adverse effect on retail sales for the all-important Christmas season. In keeping with the custom established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, Thanksgiving was traditionally observed on the last Thursday in November. Thanksgiving 1939, though, was going to be as late as it could be, falling on November 30, meaning a the shortest possible Christmas shopping season. You have to understand, back in those quaint days it was still considered in poor taste for retailers to display Christmas decorations or hold Christmas sales until after Thanksgiving Day. How times have changed!
Secretary Hopkins relayed Hahn’s concern to President Franklin Roosevelt. Mulling it over, Roosevelt, never one afraid to tinker with precedent, decided there was something he could do. On August 14, 1939, the president announced in a news conference that this year, 1939, the second-to-last Thursday in November - November 23 - would be Thanksgiving. Subsequent Thanksgivings would be proclaimed using the same schedule.
That’s when the stuffing hit the fan, so to speak. Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s Republican challenger in the last election, called the decision “another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt] impulsively has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out... instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler." 1939, and already the Republicans are using over-the-top Hitler analogies.
While not all critics were political opponents of FDR, most parts of New England, then a Republican stronghold, were among the most vocal areas. “Roosevelt to Move Thanksgiving: Retailers for It, Plymouth Is Not,” trumpeted a headline in the New York Times. James Frasier, chairman of the selectmen in Plymouth, Massachusetts, “heartily disapproved” of Roosevelt’s plan, reported the Times, because “we here in Plymouth consider the day sacred.” The observation of Thanksgiving was not a national holiday, emphasized the President, and there was nothing sacred about the date.
The short-notice change in dates affected the holiday plans of millions of Americans. Some college athletic conferences had rules permitting football games only through the Saturday following Thanksgiving. Schedule makers scrambled to see what could be done to prevent those teams from having to cut the season one week short. Many of those teams stood to lose big holiday games with a major rival.
A September 1939 Gallup poll found that Democrats favored the date switch 52% to 48%, while Republicans were opposed, 79% to 21%. Overall, Americans were not inclined, by 62% to 38% overall, to move up the date of Thanksgiving.
In a partisan response that foreshadowed that of some Republican governors in our time to Obamacare, fully half the states simply refused to go along with the new date. That year, 23 states, predominantly those with Democratic governors, and the District of Columbia observed what right-wing wags took to calling “Franksgiving” on November 23 while 23 states, the majority with Republican governors, celebrated the holiday on November 30. Two indecisive states, Colorado and Texas, observed both dates.
The controversy continued into 1940, with 31 states and the District of Columbia observing Roosevelt’s proclaimed date of November 21 while 17 carrying on with what some were now calling the “Republican” Thanksgiving on November 28.
A 1940 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon Holiday Highlights, directed by Tex Avery, spoofed the situation with a segment about Thanksgiving showing the holiday falling on two different dates, one "for Democrats" and another a week later "for Republicans."
The confusion was similarly satirized in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn. In a brief animated bumper a turkey hops back and forth between two weeks on a calendar page before finally giving up and shrugging his shoulders at the audience.
1941 again saw the states divided, with 32 states and the District of Columbia observing the holiday on the November 20 and 16 states on November 27.
But the handwriting was on the wall for “Franksgiving” when the results of a survey by the Department of Commerce of New York City, released in March 1941 found no significant expansion of retail sales attributable to the earlier holiday, as well as only 37% of surveyed retailers supporting the earlier observance. The results of the survey were put before the United States Conference of Mayors by Fiorello LaGuardia of New York and led to similar surveys in other cities with corroborating results. The U.S. Department of Commerce subsequently conceded that the expected boon to retail trade by lengthening the Christmas shopping season had failed to materialize.
On May 20, 1941, Roosevelt announced that his experiment in changing the date of Thanksgiving had been a failure and that beginning in 1942 the holiday again would be observed on its traditional date, the last Thursday in November.
On December 26, 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution setting the fourth Thursday as the official date of Thanksgiving. In 1944, the next year with five Thursdays in November, eight states continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the final Thursday. By 1945, though, nearly all the states had fallen in line with a uniform date. Texas (no surprise) was the last holdout, observing Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November for the final time in 1956.
Seventy years removed from “Franksgiving” at least we can be thankful today's Democrats and Republicans both sit down to Thanksgiving dinner on the same date, if not always at the same table.