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
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-
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