Happy Franksgiving?

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Toward the end of the 1942 movie Holiday Inn staring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire (this movie introduced Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”), a November calendar page pops up on the screen. A turkey drawn on the last Thursday suddenly becomes animated and hops up to the Thursday of the previous week; he then hops back. The turkey continues this peripatetic behavior until, worn out, he looks out at the audience, puts up his cartoon hands in an empty gesture, and shrugs in confusion. Audiences of 1942 got the joke, but 21st century television viewers under age 70 must be as perplexed as the poor turkey. If your over 70 you might recall the three year saga of “Franksgiving.”

In August 1939, Lew Hahn, general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, sent a message to Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins warning him that in the opinion of the nation’s retail merchants, 1939’s late Thanksgiving, November 30, might have a “possible adverse effect on the production and distribution of holiday goods.” Hahn went on to say “I have not sufficient temerity to seek to influence the President of the United States in connection with his Thanksgiving Day proclamation, but… if any relief could be secured it would be not only good for business, but for the public as well.”

Presidents had been proclaiming a Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday of November since President George Washington in 1789. The average American accepted this date as tradition. Yet, retail businesses knew that in years when the last Thursday fell on the 29th or 30th, the shopping period before Christmas shrank to three weeks. President Roosevelt, perhaps trying to throw a bone to the businessmen who so often railed against him, mentioned at an informal news conference during his August vacation that he would end the old tradition and move 1939’s Thanksgiving forward to Thursday, November 23. National astonishment greeted the President’s announcement.

Alf Landon, the Republican’s unsuccessful 1936 presidential candidate, said, “Another illustration of the confusion which his impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” James Frasier, the chairman of the selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the pilgrims first celebrated the holiday, “heartily disapproved,” as did most of New England.

Other than the Hitler analogy, Landon had a point: Changing Thanksgiving Day with only three months notice would have an adverse effect on the holiday plans of millions of Americans. One of the first complaints came from college football teams. Many teams in those days ended their seasons with big Thanksgiving Day rivalries. Some college football conferences even had rules banning any games after the Saturday following the holiday. If the President changed the date teams would have to move games to the new date or risk playing to empty seats on a weekday afternoon. Coach Bill Walton of little Ouchita College in Arkansas threatened to “Vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.”

At the other end of the campuses, registrars also complained: “College catalogues are printed,” said the president of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars, “Class schedules are arranged. Entertainment programs involving contracts with leading artists must be changed in the face of almost impossible odds.” Calendar makers were aghast, except for the Elliott-Greer Stationery Company of El Paso, Texas, who looked like seers — they had mistakenly printed their calendars with November 23 as Thanksgiving.

In rock-ribbed Republican Vermont, Governor Aiken sniffed disdainfully and said “Expect Thanksgiving to arrive in Vermont as usual.” Aiken’s confidence in his power to ensure the traditional date proved the key to the eventual confusion. Aiken and the other 47 governors had the right to proclaim Thanksgiving on any day they wished; the president’s power extended only to the District of Columbia and the territories.

So the states began to choose sides: Old Thanksgiving or New Deal Thanksgiving. A Gallop Poll discovered the choice contained a political tint: Democrats favored the FDR switch 52% to 48%; Republicans opposed 21% to 79%; “Others” opposed 67% to 33%. Overall Americans opposed the change 62% to 38%. On August 31, FDR turned up the oven on the turkey debate, announcing that he would move forward 1940’s Thanksgiving also.

On October 31, the President made the official proclamation naming November 23 as Thanksgiving Day 1939. As expected the state governors made their individual choices. When the final drumstick was picked clean on the night of November 30, the tally read: 22 states for the new Thanksgiving, 23 states for tradition. Texas being, well Texas, decided there was room for celebrating both days. Although smaller than their sister state, Colorado and Mississippi also squeezed in both days. Of course traditionalists couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the new date. As Macys’ balloons floated down Fifth Avenue on the 23rd, Maine’s governor protested FDR’s Thanksgiving by sitting at a conference and eating a can of sardines.

The following year 32 states observed the earlier date while 16 choose what some called the “Republican” Thanksgiving. Although Franksgiving had gained support, the President told reporters, on May 20, 1941, that a Commerce Department survey found no significant expansion of retail sales from the earlier date; therefore, the experiment had failed. FDR said it was too late to move 1941’s date back to the traditional day, but beginning in 1942, Thanksgiving would return to the last Thursday in November. Not quite.

Congress finally acted, passing a law, which FDR signed, making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November (our current law). This law eliminates the 29th and 30th because if those days fall on a Thursday they are the fifth Thursday of the month. Franksgiving may have been a turkey for some people, but the controversy resulted in our present Thanksgiving holiday.