Thanksgiving and tradition

THANKSGIVING has been one of the most venerable of American holidays, weathering all attempts over the years to change its characteristics. For example, it is, indeed, a national holiday, thanks largely to the efforts of George Washington. In proclaiming the first national Thanksgiving on Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, Washington disregarded his congressional critics. One argued that such a day was inappropriate because it mimicked European tradition. Another contended that ``if a day of Thanksgiving must take p lace, let it be done by the authority of the States; they know best what reason their constituents have. . . .'' Then there was the view that the people ``may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced [it].'' To be sure, by the 19th century, presidential power and Washington's reputation were on the skids, and Thanksgiving proclamations emanating from the White House were conspicuous by their absence.

Enter, however, a strong executive in the person of Abraham Lincoln and a strong campaign conducted by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of a women's magazine. The result was a national Thanksgiving on Nov. 26, 1863. Every President save three followed Lincoln's lead in the next 75 years: Andrew Johnson chose the first Thursday in December 1865; Ulysses Grant the third Thursday in November 1869; and Franklin Roosevelt the next-to-last Thursday in November 1939.

So set were Americans by the 20th century with Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November that FDR's modest change caused a political uproar. Of course, Roosevelt's motive was good: Thanksgiving Day under the Washington-Lincoln tradition would have fallen on Nov. 30, permitting merchants with a scant three weeks to conduct Christmas business. So merchants, still suffering from depression blues, urged the President to move the holiday to Nov. 23.

Never would so many Americans rally to take issue with their president. Some states declined to go along; a few celebrated both the traditional and the new date; and in every state the polls showed that FDR had committed a political error. On Capitol Hill, the President became subject to ridicule. One senator said, ``I wish Mr. Roosevelt would abolish winter.''

Not surprisingly, the matter called for the highest quality of statesmanship -- and Congress rose to the occasion. Traditionalists wanted the holiday to be on the last Thursday in November, merchants opted for FDR's plan. Congress in 1941 saved tradition and the American presidency by compromising: it made the fourth Thursday the national Thanksgiving. Most of the time, as is the case this year, that's the last Thursday in the month.

And so for all this history that ends well, Americans have one more reason to be thankful this Thanksgiving.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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