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Thanksgiving was a controversial holiday called “Franksgiving” for FDR

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  • Thanksgiving falls on November 28 this year, which means that the holiday shopping season will be shorter than usual.
  • Back in 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced a similarly compressed holiday season.
  • To assuage the fears of retail lobbyists, FDR moved Thanksgiving forward a week that year.
  • The change divided the country, with 16 states refusing to move up the date of the holiday.
  • Thanksgiving remained an issue as hot as a bowl of scalding mashed potatoes until the president admitted defeat in 1941.
  • That same year, Congress resolved to declare that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.
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Thanks to an unusually late Thanksgiving, the year 2019 is closing out with a shortened holiday shopping season. Retailers in the United States rely upon the flurry of spending that traditionally occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so this simple quirk of the calendar could end up wreaking havoc on the whole industry.

It wouldn’t be the first time, either. Some serious holiday meddling on the part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt 80 years ago actually kicked off a controversy that would prompt Congress to permanently fix Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. Roosevelt’s efforts to elongate a similarly stubby shopping season resulted in a holiday — and a country — more thoroughly split than a yanked-apart wishbone.

The trouble really began under an earlier administration, when President Abraham Lincoln designated the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving. Jump ahead nearly four score years later, and Lincoln’s tradition was giving the Retail Dry Goods Association a collective stress headache. The calendar year of 1939 simply wasn’t sales-friendly. Thanksgiving was set to take place on November 30, the last possible day it could fall.

Worried about the implications for retail sales, RDGA general manager Lew Hahn took his case to Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins, author Melanie Kirkpatrick writes in the book “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience.” Hahn asked the administration to lengthen the shopping season by pushing Thanksgiving a week earlier. After all, the businesses he represented had only emerged from the Great Depression a few years prior. 

This wasn’t the first time someone in the business world had advocated pulling a Thanksgiving switcheroo, either. Back in 1933, the Downtown Association of Los Angeles penned a letter to the White House noting that, “the Thanksgiving to Christmas period is the busiest retail period of the whole year.”

And it wasn’t as if retailers could simply, say, inundate their stores with holiday merchandise a bit early. To put the Christmas cart before the Thanksgiving horse would have been considered baffling and tacky in the 1930s. The only reprieve for retail would be to break with Lincoln’s precedent.

An artificial ‘Franksgiving’

FDR apparently agreed with Hahn and Hopkins, proclaiming on October 31 that “a day of general thanksgiving” would be celebrated on November 23, the second to last Thursday in the month.

Well, that announcement went over about as well as a scorched turkey. Thousands of citizens wrote to the White House in protest, many decrying November 23 as an artificial “Franksgiving.” 

“This country is not entirely money-minded, we need a certain amount of idealism and sentiment to keep up the morale of our people, and you would even take that from us,” two anti-Franksgiving partisans from South Dakota wrote.

Others complained about the eleventh-hour nature of the decision, noting that FDR’s interference would disrupt everything from football games to travel plans. Kirkpatrick writes that some retailers, especially smaller outfits, even felt the shorter shopping season would be a boon to their businesses.

The president’s political rivals also pounced. Alf Landon, the Republican presidential candidate whom FDR trounced in 1936, went as far as comparing FDR to Adolf Hitler over the move. Time quoted Landon as saying that FDR was “springing” the decision “upon an unprepared country.”

A 1939 Gallup poll found that 62% of respondents disapproved of “Franksgiving.” And, while most governors moved Thanksgiving a week ahead, 16 states refused to acquiesce to FDR’s new holiday plans. The festive stalemate drew out for two years.

Then, in 1941, FDR relented. The New York Times reported that, after discovering that “Franksgiving” failed to “boom trade” as much as he hoped, the president announced that the holiday would revert to its traditional spot in the month. That same year, a joint resolution from Congress cementing the fourth Thursday in November as the official date of Thanksgiving made it to FDR’s desk. The president signed the bill into law on the day after Christmas that year.

So if you’re feeling stressed as you rush about buying gifts this holiday season, think about the bloodless civil war waged over “Franksgiving,” and remember that things could be far worse.

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