During the Great Depression, the government tried a lot of experiments hoping to bail out failing sectors of the economy. Probably the most ridiculous move was the attempt to bailout retailers by moving Thanksgiving.
Bill Kauffman tells the tale:
It seems that in 1939 Thanksgiving was to fall on November 30th, a matter of consternation to the big merchants 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 favoured the shift. One Kokomo shopkeeper hung a sign in his window reading, “Do your shopping now. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.”)
Opinion polls revealed that more than 60 per cent of Americans opposed the Rooseveltian ukase; dissent was especially 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 Almighty, harrumphed Governor Leverett Salstonstall of Massachusetts, “and not for the inauguration of Christmas shopping.”
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 erupted. As usual, New Deal foes had all the wit, if not the votes. A New Hampshire senator urged the President to abolish winter; the Oregon attorney general versified:
30 days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have 30-one.
Until we hear from Washington.
20-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 Roosevelt 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.
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