When FDR Tried - And Failed - To Move Thanksgiving
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now, a bit of history about when we mark Thanksgiving. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln decreed Americans would celebrate a day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. In 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution on the matter with a slight variation, and President Franklin Roosevelt made it official.
President FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, president of the United States of America, do hereby invite the attention of the people to the joint resolution of Congress approve December 26th, 1941, which designates the fourth Tuesday in November of each year as Thanksgiving Day.
NORRIS: Now, it may have sounded like FDR was saying Tuesday, but he was referring to the fourth Thursday, which is not always the last in the month. In fact, a couple years earlier, in 1939, there were five Thursdays in November, and that year, FDR decided to move Thanksgiving forward by one week.
Melanie Kirkpatrick writes about what's behind that move in today's Wall Street Journal, and she joins me now.
Ms. Kirkpatrick, what was FDR thinking in 1939?
Ms. MELANIE KIRKPATRICK (Writer, Wall Street Journal): FDR decided he wanted to boost business by creating more shopping days before Christmas.
NORRIS: And the reaction to this idea?
Ms. KIRKPATRICK: People went bonkers, and it broke down, for the most part, by party lines, with states with Republican governors saying they wanted to stick with tradition and states with good Democratic governors going along with their president, but that wasn't entirely the case. There were some Democratic states and some Republican states that went the other way.
NORRIS: And the retailers, they must have liked the idea, but the college coaches, they didn't like it.
Ms. KIRKPATRICK: The retailers were split, actually. The retailers were behind to this idea, but it was the big retailers who persuaded Roosevelt to do it. Small retailers were very unhappy with it and wrote to Roosevelt and tried to get him to change it back.
College football coaches were probably the most upset of all because their football schedules were organized around Thanksgiving.
NORRIS: And one college coach said: We will vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.
Ms. KIRKPATRICK: Exactly. That was in Arkansas, which was a staunchly Democratic state.
NORRIS: How did FDR react to the backlash?
Ms. KIRKPATRICK: Well, FDR, you know, sort of sat tight for a year, and in fact, in the second year, more states agreed to go along with the new date. But then, the result of the experiment began to become known, and the retail sales weren't working and people were still annoyed by it all. So in March of 1941, he announced that it would revert to the traditional date, and then Congress got into the act, and in the fall, Congress passed legislation saying that starting in 1942, Thanksgiving would be on the fourth Thursday of November.
You know, I'd also like to point out here, Michele, that this turned into a political hot potato as well. Alf Landon, who FDR had defeated for the presidency, compared him to Hitler. So, you know, the rhetoric got pretty tough.
NORRIS: Well, Ms. Kirkpatrick, thank you very much for talking to us. When we called you, you were taking part in your own Thanksgiving tradition, baking a few pies. So sorry for slowing you down in that, but we're glad that you talked to us.
Ms. KIRKPATRICK: Not at all. Thank you, and enjoy the turkey day.
NORRIS: You too. That's Melanie Kirkpatrick. She's a former deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal. She joined us from her home in New Hartford, Connecticut.
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