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How FDR Tried To Make Thanksgiving Arrive Earlier

When a president's rendezvous with destiny puts him in a position to save his nation's economy from ruin, he probably can be forgiven for thinking it's all right to use his power to move the Thanksgiving Day holiday.

President Franklin Roosevelt. AP Photo hide caption

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Rescheduling Thanksgiving Day is exactly what President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to do in 1939.

As NPR's Michelle Norris discussed on All Things Considered with Melanie Kirkpatrick who wrote a piece for Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, in 1939 FDR caused controversy by declaring that Thanksgiving would occur one week earlier.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln had declared a national day of thanksgiving in November and by tradition it became customary for the presidents who followed him to annually declare that it would be observed on the last Thursday of the month.

In 1939 there were five Thursdays in November, however. That meant fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which worried large retailers who lobbied FDR to move up Thanskgiving. He did.

Which caused an uproar among small retailers and many members of the public, including football coaches who had scheduled Thanksgiving games far in advance, only to have FDR make their well-laid plans awry.

The following YouTube video of a scene from the movie "Holiday Inn" featuring Bing Crosby starts with an animated turkey visually comedically demonstrating the confusion FDR caused.

Jere's an excerpt of Michelle's discussion with Kirkpatrick who describes how Americans reacted:

KIRKPATRICK: People went bonkers... College football coaches were probably the most upset of all because their football schedules were organized around Thanksgiving.

MICHELLE: And one college coach said 'We will vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.'

KIRKPATRICK: Exactly. That was in Arkansas, which was a staunchly Democratic state.

Calendar printers were pretty scorched over the change, too.

Numerous governors refused to go along with FDR. So there were actually two Thanksgivings a week apart, with families not able to gather because in one place it was a holiday while in another it wasn't. In short, it was a ridiculous and thus untenable situation.

For all the trouble it caused (you can read some complaint letters to FDR library site hosted by Marist University) the change didn't do much for retail sales.

In March 1941, Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving back to the last Thursday of November which Congress codified later that year. And that was the end of that experiment.