Here’s a plot for a sure-fire blockbuster: Special interests want Americans to spend more money, so they persuade a pliant White House to declare that Thanksgiving will be held earlier, lengthening the holiday shopping season! Diabolical, isn’t it?
But ordinary people rebel at Washington’s meddling with tradition. Many hold Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November anyway, crushing the Plot to Steal Turkey Day. The president sees the error of his ways, Congress passes a law ensuring no one can do that again, and an angel gets his wings.
Fantasy? Nope. It all happened. Except the part about the wings.
Perhaps in real life the situation wasn’t quite that dramatic. And the president in question, Franklin Roosevelt, had an excuse: It was the Depression, and he was doing all he could to get the US economy running again.
Throughout the 1930s, merchant groups lobbied FDR to move Thanksgiving up a week from its traditional last Thursday in November. Christmas shopping started on the Friday afterward, even then; many stores wanted seven extra days of selling time. Finally, in 1939, a year when November had five Thursdays and Thanksgiving was to fall on the last day of the month, FDR heeded these calls and announced that the holiday would be Nov. 23. Chaos ensued.
Letters of protest swamped the White House. Small businesses said only chain stores would benefit. Schools were livid about changing plans for Thanksgiving football games. Calendarmakers groused that preprinted stock was obsolete. And, yes, many citizens did not want the tradition changed.
“This country is not entirely money-minded, we need a certain amount of idealism and sentiment to keep up the morale of our people,” wrote a Robert Benson of Groton, S.D., in a letter to the White House now in the FDR Library collection.
Some states defied the president and held Thanksgiving on the traditional day. Some had two holidays, calling one “Franksgiving.”
The experiment lasted through 1941. In December of that year, Congress passed a bill establishing the fourth Thursday in November as a unified Thanksgiving for all Americans. FDR, perhaps happy the episode was behind him, signed it into law.