FLASHBACK: Book Exposes the Time FDR Messed With Thanksgiving (and Regretted It)

News & Politics

The holiday of Thanksgiving is under a yearly attack from liberals who find the holiday a hateful “day of mourning.” But a new book on the history of the day finds it’s not the first time Thanksgiving has been under fire.

Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience has been newly reissued for the 400th anniversary of Thanksgiving.

The book is an entertaining tour through the long and winding centuries of Thanksgiving, from Pilgrims, to George Washington, to Lincoln, to turkey. But conservatives will find chapter 7 particularly interesting: It reminds readers of Franklin Roosevelt’s botched attempt to mess with the holiday.

Kirkpatrick explained how FDR moved Thanksgiving from the fourth Thursday in November to the third Thursday in November. His ill-conceived idea was explained to the press on August 14, 1939:

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There were five Thursdays in November that year, which mean that Thanksgiving Day, if celebrated on the last Thursday, would fall on the 30th of the month. That left just twenty shopping days till Christmas. Moving the holiday up to November 23 would allow shoppers more time to make their purchase and —so the president’s dubious theory went — spend more money, thus giving the economy a lift.

Most Americans would have been happy to comply with the President’s encouragement to spend more, if they had the money. But they didn’t, and the early Thanksgiving was just another example of the New Deal’s ill-considered campaign to bring the country out of the Depression by persuading people to spend their way to prosperity.

Spending their way to prosperity? Sounds familiar. The move met with uproar from New Englanders, to colleges with football games already scheduled. Americans used to everything in 2021 becoming political will see that history repeats itself. Kirkpatrick wrote about the newly partisan 1939 Thanksgiving: “It wasn’t long before people started referring to November 30 as the ‘Republican Thanksgiving’ and November 23 as the ‘Democratic Thanksgiving’ or even ‘Franksgiving.’”

Twenty three states stuck with the original (or classic) date. Twenty two went with the Democratic Thanksgiving. If you liked big meals that year, you wanted to be in Texas, Mississippi or Colorado. They celebrated both Thanksgivings.

1936 Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon thundered that FDR was behaving like the world’s worst dictator at the time: According to Landon, FDR announced the change “to an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” Gallup found only 38 percent of Americans supported the change with 62 opposed.

Showing more devotion than Coca-Cola did with New Coke, Roosevelt forced the change on America for two more years before, finally, in May of 1941, FDR admitted the “experiment” had been a failure.

The Washington Post, let the Democrat off easy, something the paper still does in 2021. A columnist gently wrote, “In 1942 and after, by grace of Presidential rectification of error, Thanksgiving will be on the old date.”

Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, has written a fine book on the history of Thanksgiving. It’s a great read this Turkey Day or any in the future. Order a copy here

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