U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a lot to think about in 1939. The world had been suffering from the Great Depression for a decade and the Second World War had just erupted in Europe. On top of that, the U.S. economy continued to look bleak. So when U.S. retailers begged him to move Thanksgiving up a week to increase the shopping days before Christmas, he agreed. He probably considered it a small change; however, when FDR issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation with the new date, there was an uproar throughout the country.
The First Thanksgiving
As most schoolchildren know, the history of Thanksgiving began when Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together to celebrate a successful harvest. The first Thanksgiving was held in the fall of 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, and was a three-day feast. The Pilgrims were joined by approximately 90 of the local Wampanoag tribe, including Chief Massasoit, in celebration. They ate fowl and deer for certain and most likely also ate berries, fish, clams, plums, and boiled pumpkin.
Though the current holiday of Thanksgiving was based on the 1621 feast, it did not immediately become an annual celebration or holiday. Sporadic days of Thanksgiving followed, usually declared locally to give thanks for a specific event such as the end of a drought, victory in a specific battle, or after a harvest.
It wasn't until October 1777 that all 13 colonies celebrated a day of Thanksgiving. The very first national day of Thanksgiving was held in 1789, when President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26 to be "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer," to especially give thanks for the opportunity to form a new nation and the establishment of a new constitution.
Yet even after a national day of Thanksgiving was declared in 1789, Thanksgiving was not an annual celebration.
Mother of Thanksgiving
We owe the modern concept of Thanksgiving to a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book and author of the famous "Mary Had a Little Lamb" nursery rhyme, spent 40 years advocating for a national, annual Thanksgiving holiday. In the years leading up to the Civil War, she saw the holiday as a way to infuse hope and belief in the nation and the constitution. So, when the United States was torn in half during the Civil War and Lincoln was searching for a way to bring the nation together, he discussed the matter with Hale.
Lincoln Sets Date
On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared the last Thursday in November (based on Washington's date) to be a day of "thanksgiving and praise." For the first time, Thanksgiving became a national, annual holiday with a specific date.
FDR Changes It
For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving. However, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not. In 1939, the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. Retailers complained to FDR that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more.
So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month.
The new date for Thanksgiving caused a lot of confusion. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools who had planned vacations and tests now had to reschedule. Thanksgiving had been a big day for football games, as it is today, so the game schedule had to be examined.
Political opponents of FDR and many others questioned the president's right to change the holiday and stressed the breaking of precedent and disregard for tradition. Many believed that changing a cherished holiday just to appease businesses was not a sufficient reason for change. Atlantic City's mayor derogatorily called November 23 as "Franksgiving."