November 26, 2010
It’s Black Friday again – the start of the holiday shopping season, and the closest most of us will ever come to participating in a full-on riot. For more than a century, this uniquely commercial holiday has heralded the busiest month of the year for U.S. retailers.
The calendars of 1939 marked Thanksgiving Day on November 30, the last Thursday in November, in accordance with a custom established in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln.
However, 1939 was no ordinary year. For one thing, it was one of those years that had five Thursdays in November instead of four (a two-in-seven occurrence). It was also a year when the United States, like much of the world, was still in the throes of the Great Depression.
Some retailers worried that 1939’s shorter-than-average gift-buying season would squeeze their revenues. So, help from the president’s commerce secretary, they persuaded Franklin Roosevelt to move up that year’s holiday by a full week. (In those quaint times, it was considered crass for businesses to hold holiday sales or even put up decorations before Thanksgiving.)
Every president since Lincoln had made an official proclamation designating “a day of thanksgiving,” but not one had broken with the final-Thursday precedent until Roosevelt did so in 1939. In the same proclamation, he moved 1940’s Thanksgiving up by a week as well, and he later did the same for 1941.
Most Americans didn’t like the idea of rescheduling Thanksgiving for purely commercial reasons, and a new name emerged for the displaced holiday: “Franksgiving.”
FDR’s 1939 proclamation was made in October, forcing people to hastily update schedules and change travel plans. It also had unintended negative consequences on businesses and institutions across the country. For example, many college football leagues had rules prohibiting regular-season games beyond the Saturday following Thanksgiving Day, and many traditional rivalry games were scheduled for the holiday itself. The last-minute rescheduling caused countless headaches for athletic directors and football fans alike.
Roosevelt’s presidential proclamation didn’t have the full authority of law, so states could decide for themselves whether to go along with the new holiday – and many of them opted out. In 1940, 16 states – mostly in the northeast, then a Republican stronghold – decided to stick with the traditional day. This led to the naming of another “new” holiday in 1940: “Republican Thanksgiving.”
By 1941, it was apparent that FDR’s well-intentioned but unpopular edict hadn’t really made an impact on holiday sales, and so, on November 26 – a week after the final “Franksgiving,” and just a few short weeks before the United States would enter World War II – the president signed into law a joint resolution of Congress placing Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November…and gave Americans one more thing to be thankful for.
For more backstory on FDR’s rescheduling of Thanksgving – including copies of several letters about the issue he received from citizens – see this excellent article on the Marist College website.