For seventy-five years after President Lincoln issued his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation for the “last Thursday in November,” all but two succeeding presidents honored the tradition established by President Washington. In 1865 and 1869, Presidents Johnson and Grant, respectively, chose a different Thursday. After that, every other president annually issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation, keeping with the last Thursday in November as the date. Keep in mind that the dating was a tradition, as was the Thanksgiving proclamation itself, in fact, and not a legal obligation by the president. Still, for a very long time the last Thursday had been proclaimed, and over time it became an accepted fact to most.
That changed in 1939 with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That year the last Thursday of November happened to be the 30th, and retailers (who were still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression) complained to FDR that with only twenty-four shopping days until Christmas, people would be rushed. The argument was to push Thanksgiving back one week, retailers hoping the extra week of shopping would translate to better sales.
Roosevelt agreed, and with his Thanksgiving Proclamation declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23. Needless to say, this new date after seventy-five year lead to massive confusion and controversy. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools had to rearrange vacations and tests. Football games were already an integral part of Thanksgiving, so the game schedule had to be examined. And on and on….
Political opponents and many others questioned the right of the president to change the holiday. They stressed the breaking of precedent and flippant disregard for tradition, feeling, especially, that changing a cherished holiday just to appease businesses was not a sufficient reason.
Governors, who had traditionally followed the president in officially proclaiming the same day as Thanksgiving for their state, decided not to change the date. The country became split on which Thanksgiving date to observe. Twenty-three states followed the president, and twenty-three other states kept the traditional date of November 30. Two states, Colorado and Texas, decided to honor both dates!
Aside from the turmoil and frustration felt across the country, the extended holiday shopping season did not cause people to spend more. Businesses from all states reported that the spending was approximately the same.
Roosevelt did not budge in 1940. Again he announced Thanksgiving to be the second-to-last Thursday of the month, and the confusion continued. Thirty-one states followed him with the earlier date and seventeen kept the traditional date.
In a bizarre twist of irony, the holiday established by Lincoln to bring the country together was now tearing it apart. By 1941 Congress stepped in, deciding to fix a date for Thanksgiving. In a compromise, the date was amended to the “fourth Thursday in November” rather than the traditional “last Thursday” to take into account those years when November would have five Thursdays. The resolution was passed on December 26, 1941, establishing once and hopefully forever the date of Thanksgiving as a Federal Holiday in the United States of America.
These are the words spoken and written by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his 1941 Thanksgiving Proclamation—
“It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord. Across the uncertain ways of space and time our hearts echo those words, for the days are with us again when, at the gathering of the harvest, we solemnly express our dependence upon Almighty God.
The final months of this year, now almost spent, find our Republic and the nations joined with it waging a battle on many fronts for the preservation of liberty. In giving thanks for the greatest harvest in the history of our nation, we who plant and reap can well resolve that in the year to come we will do all in our power to pass that milestone; for by our labors in the fields we can share some part of the sacrifice with our brothers and sons who wear the uniform of the United States.
It is fitting that we recall now the reverent words of George Washington, “Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy holy protection,” and that every American in his own way lift his voice to Heaven. Inspired with faith and courage by these words, let us turn again to the work that confronts us in this time of national emergency…
Now therefore, I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby invite the attention of the people to the joint resolution of Congress approved December 26, 1941, which designates the fourth Thursday in November of each year as Thanksgiving Day and I request that both Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1942, and New Year’s Day, January 1, 1943, be observed in prayer, publicly and privately.”