Prior to 1939, the date for Thanksgiving was set by the President of the United States each year. It had been signed into law as a federal holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870, as part of the Holidays Act, but the actual date of the observance was left up to each subsequent president. However, in keeping with a custom that had begun with Abraham Lincoln in 1863, Thanksgiving had been held on the last Thursday in November every year since.
In 1939, the last Thursday in November would also have been the last day of the month. Back then, the modern phenomenon known as “Christmas creep” had not yet overtaken the country, and so it was still considered bad form for stores to put up Christmas displays or sales before Thanksgiving. It was because of this that Harry Hopkins, then Secretary of Commerce, was reportedly told that having Thanksgiving on November 30 would be deleterious to retailers.
With the nation still in the grips of the Great Depression, America’s retailers needed a boost—at least, that seems to be what President Franklin D. Roosevelt thought when he declared that Thanksgiving would fall instead on November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month. Unfortunately for the overall reception of this decision, he only made the announcement in late August that year.
Though setting the date of the celebration had technically been left the president’s prerogative, the move by Roosevelt was met with everything from skepticism to outright hostility. Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1936 presidential election, accused the president of “springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler”—just in case you thought that electoral rhetoric used to be a lot more civilized and less bombastic than it is today.
The problem overall was that November is capable of having five Thursdays, something that happens in about two of every seven Novembers. When this happens, the last Thursday of the month is often quite late, such as in 1939, when it was literally on November 30.
While the president was in charge of setting the federal holiday, state governments had independent oversight to determine when to recognize the holiday and give time off to their employees—and, in many cases, also the employees of individual municipalities. With opposition to Roosevelt’s change, even greater confusion was the result, as roughly half of the country was given the day off work on the “traditional” date of November 30, while the other half got off on November 23, and the residents of a few lucky states (Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas) enjoyed the best of both worlds, with holidays in both weeks.
The change in date affected more than just what day people got off work to eat turkey and argue with their family members, though. Besides the fiscal impacts that instigated the move in the first place, there were a variety of unforeseen consequences from the late announcement of the changed date. Suddenly, the holiday plans of Americans all over the country were up in the air, while sports teams who typically played on Thanksgiving found themselves either shifting their schedules or facing the specter of canceled games or playing to empty stadiums.
A Gallup poll in 1939 indicated that some 62% of Americans opposed the change, while 38% were in favor of it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these divisions broke down more sharply along party lines, with members of Roosevelt’s party being more likely to favor the switch, while Republicans opposed it by some 79%, and many of the states that opted not to observe the changed date were Republican strongholds at the time. In fact, the move was unpopular enough, even among some of Roosevelt’s own supporters, that the altered date was sometimes derisively referred to as “Franksgiving.”
As you can imagine, the controversial move was also the subject of fun for a number of comedy teams, ranging from popular radio personalities to the cartoon show Merrie Melodies (companion series to the better-known Looney Tunes) to the 1942 Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire musical Holiday Inn, which features an animated turkey jumping between dates on a calendar before turning to the audience and shrugging in defeat.
The following year, Roosevelt did the same thing, though this time he gave everyone a bit more notice, and the proclamation was therefore met with somewhat more enthusiasm. This time, roughly 32 states followed the changed date, with only about 16 celebrating the “Republican Thanksgiving” on November 28.
But did it work? Well, according to a 1941 survey of the Commerce Department, there was “no significant expansion of retail sales due to the change,” with a New York Times headline announcing that, “Thanksgiving Goes Back to Old Date in ’42; President Says Change Did Not Boom Trade.” However, that headline isn’t exactly accurate.
While “Franksgiving” may have been an unpopular move that failed to stimulate the economy, it nevertheless had a lasting impact on how we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States—or, more accurately, when.
On November 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed into law a joint resolution of Congress which fixed the date of Thanksgiving—not on the last Thursday of the month, as it had been prior to “Franksgiving,” but on the fourth Thursday of the month. This helped to keep Thanksgiving near where it was traditionally celebrated, while also avoiding those pesky years with five Thursdays in November.
Of course, just because Roosevelt had signed the new date into law didn’t mean that it suddenly became popular. While the holdouts were not as many with the new “fourth Thursday” date, there were several states that resisted changing their own laws until several years later. 1944 was the first year with five Thursdays in November following the joint resolution, and eight states opted to continue celebrating on the old “last Thursday” model. By then, however, the United States was in the throes of World War II, and holiday merrymaking was somewhat on hold as a result, anyway.
By the time the war had ended, most states were on board with the new date, although in true Texas form, the Lone Star State continued to hold out until 1956, when it celebrated its final last-Thursday Thanksgiving and state laws were finally changed. Today, everyone in the United States who celebrates Thanksgiving does so on the fourth Thursday of the month—and if we like that, we have “Franksgiving” to thank for it.