The Grinch Who Moved Thanksgiving

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

George
Washington issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation on
November 26, 1789, but the early presidents, 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 Thanksgiving.

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, pumpkin 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 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 favored 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 percent 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:

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
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.

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.

November
26, 2003

Bill
Kauffman’s [send him mail]
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 American Enterprise.


        
        

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