Did you know that Thanksgiving used to be the last Thursday in November? Learn why it changed in 1939, and how the public reacted.
By John Vara
Nov 12 2021
Why We Celebrate Thanksgiving on the Fourth Thursday of NovemberPhoto Credit : Marjory Collins [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November?
The country was still emerging from the Depression when Franklin D. Roosevelt announced, in the summer of 1939, that he was moving the Thanksgiving holiday from the last Thursday in November to the Thursday preceding it. In purely economic terms, it seemed to make sense. Moving the holiday forward a week, the president explained, would enable retailers to sell more goods before Christmas and provide a longer period of temporary work for the unemployed.
In practice, however, the plan was unpopular from the beginning. College and high school football coaches were incensed to learn their Thanksgiving Day games, long ago scheduled for November 30th would now fall on an ordinary working day. The Plymouth, Massachusetts, board of selectmen sent an angry letter of protest to Roosevelt, and board chairman James Frazier announced that Plymouth would not recognize the revised date. “It is a religious holiday,” he said, “and the president has no right to change it for commercial interests.” One Republican senator acidly suggested that the president abolish winter.
By late November, the country found itself divided along party lines. All six New England states, and 17 others, spurned the early Thanksgiving. Of the remainder, 22 — including most of those with Democratic governors — fell in line behind the president. Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas tactfully celebrated both dates.
The following year, Roosevelt announced that Thanksgiving would again be celebrated a week in advance of the traditional date. In May of 1941, however, he surprised critics by conceding that the expected surge in business had not materialized in either of the two previous years. After Thanksgiving of 1941, he declared the holiday would revert to the original date. In December 1941, Congress passed a resolution permanently fixing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
Excerpt from “’The New Deal on Thanksgiving,” Yankee Magazine, November 1995.