WS>>The Grinch Who Moved Thanksgiving

carl william spitzer iv cwsiv_2nd at JUNO.COM
Fri Nov 28 20:02:25 MST 2003

          November 26, 2003
          by Bill Kauffman

          Over  the river and through the wood, to  Grandfather's
     house we go...Ah, Thanksgiving, our loveliest secular  holi-
     day.  Even the Masters of War can't dislodge it  though  FDR
     tried his damndest.

          George Washington issued the first National  Thanksgiv-
     ing Proclamation on November 26, 1789, but the early  presi-
     dents, disproportionately Virginian and of a states'  rights
     disposition,  regarded  such  proclamations  as  excessively
     Yankee and Federalist. Even John Quincy Adams, the  ultimate
     codfish President, was reluctant to be seen as  "introducing
     New England manners" by a public acknowledgement of  Thanks-

          The  antebellum  New England novelist and  editor  Sara
     Josepha  Hale  is to Thanksgiving what Stevie Wonder  is  to
     Martin Luther King Day. The indefatigable Hale propagandized
     ceaselessly for the glory of late November Thursdays,  pump-
     kin  pie, roasted turkey, "savory stuffing"  everything  but
     the  Detroit  Lions. It took 35 years and a civil  war,  but
     Mrs. Hale's efforts paid off when President Lincoln declared
     the last Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving
     and a legal holiday.

          Andrew  Johnson,  even the contrarian,  designated  his
     first  Thanksgiving  Day  in December,  but  his  successor,
     Ulysses Grant, began a 70-year practice of setting the  date
     on the last Thursday in November. The states were free to go
     their  own  ways,  and Southern governors  often  opted  for
     idiosyncratic  observances or none at all.  As  Thanksgiving
     historian Diana Karter Applebaum notes, Texas Governor  Oran
     Milo  Roberts  refused to declare Thanksgiving in  the  Lone
     Star  State,  remarking, "It's a damned  Yankee  institution
     anyway."  But the South, too, eventually succumbed  to  this
     succulent and sacred day.

          Then along came Franklin D. Roosevelt.

          It  seems  that  in 1939 Thanksgiving was  to  fall  on
     November  30th,  a matter of consternation to the  big  mer-
     chants of the National Retail Dry Goods Association (NRDGA).
     The presidents of Gimbel Brothers, Lord & Taylor, and  other
     unsentimental vendors petitioned President Roosevelt to move
     Thanksgiving  to  the previous Thursday, November  23,  thus
     creating an additional week of Christmas shopping and to the
     astonishment  of  those Americans without  dollar  signs  in
     their eyes, the president did so. (Not all merchants favored
     the  shift. One Kokomo shopkeeper hung a sign in his  window
     reading,  "Do your shopping now. Who knows, tomorrow may  be

          Opinion  polls  revealed that more than 60  percent  of
     Americans opposed the Rooseveltian ukase; dissent was  espe-
     cially  vigorous in New England. The selectmen of  Plymouth,
     Massachusetts,  informed the President, "It is  a  religious
     holiday and [you] have no right to change it for  commercial
     reasons."  Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks to  the  Al-
     mighty,  harrumphed Governor Leverett Salstonstall  of  Mas-
     sachusetts,  "and  not  for the  inauguration  of  Christmas

          Although  the states customarily followed  the  federal
     government's  lead on Thanksgiving, they retained the  right
     to set their own date for the holiday, so 48 battles  erupt-
     ed.  As  usual, New Deal foes had all the wit,  if  not  the
     votes. A New Hampshire senator urged the President to  abol-
     ish winter; the Oregon attorney general versified:

          Thirty days hath September,
          April, June, and November;
          All the rest have thirty-one.
          Until we hear from Washington.

          Twenty-three  states  celebrated Thanksgiving  1939  on
     November 23, and another 23 stood fast with November 30. Two
     states,  Colorado  and Texas, shrugged their  shoulders  and
     celebrated  both days Texas did so to avoid having  to  move
     the  Texas/Texas  A&M football game. (In recent  years,  the
     Texas  turkey bowl game has been transplanted to the  Friday
     following  Thanksgiving  due to pressure from a  power  even
     greater than FDR: television.)

          This  New Deal experiment in Gimbelism lasted two  more
     years,  until  finally  the NRDGA admitted  that  there  was
     little difference in retail sales figures between the states
     that  celebrated Thanksgiving early and those that clung  to
     the traditional holiday. Without fanfare, President  Roosev-
     elt  returned  Thanksgiving  1942 to the  last  Thursday  in
     November.  Mark  Sullivan noted that this was the  only  New
     Deal experiment FDR ever renounced.

          Just  as Roosevelt's megalomaniacal refusal to  observe
     the two-term tradition set by George Washington necessitated
     the  22nd  Amendment, so did his  flouting  of  Thanksgiving
     precedent require corrective legislation. In a compromise of
     sorts, FDR signed into law a bill fixing Thanksgiving as the
     fourth  Thursday  not the last Thursday in  November.  Never
     again would Thanksgiving fall on November 29th or 30th.  The
     states followed suit, although Texas held out until 1956.

          As  we  gather together this Thanksgiving let  us  push
     from  our  minds the Imperial Presidents FDR and  George  W.
     Bush  wastrel  sons  of  pinchbeck-aristocrat  families  and
     instead  say a silent thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale for  this
     lovely holiday. And save a drumstick for the resisters  then
     and now.

          Bill Kauffman's most recent book is Dispatches from
          the Muckdog  Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account
          of  a Small Town's  Fight  to Survive (Henry Holt).
          A version of this essay appeared earlier in The Am-
          erican Enterprise.

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