“I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate Thursday, the twenty-third of November 1939, as a day of general thanksgiving.” How appropriate that Roosevelt’s proclamation was issued on Halloween, the day for tricks or treats. The average citizen was irritated and confused; big business was delighted. In the end, Thanksgiving was celebrated on two different dates that year.
At the beginning of Roosevelt’s presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday; it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. However, Thanksgiving was always the last Thursday in November because that was the day President Abraham Lincoln observed the holiday when he declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
FDR’s break with tradition was prompted by requests from the National Retail Dry Goods Association to extend the Christmas shopping season by one week. Roosevelt had rejected the association’s similar request in 1933 on the grounds that such change might cause confusion. The 1939 proclamation proved him more right than he probably would have liked. Football coaches scrambled to reschedule games set for November 30th, families didn’t know when to have their holiday meals, and people weren’t sure when to start their Christmas shopping.
Some folks found mirth in the situation. “Mr. President: I see by the paper this morning where you want to change Thanksgiving Day to Nov. 23, of which I heartily approve. Thanks,” wrote one Shelby O. Bennett of Shinnston WV, whose letter has been saved by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. “Now there are some things that I would like done and would appreciate your approval:
1. Have Sunday changed to Wednesday.
2. Have Monday’s to be Christmas.
3. Have it strictly against the will of God to work on Tuesday.”
Thousands more letters, most not so lighthearted, poured into the White House. Smaller businesses complained they would lose business to larger stores. Other companies that depended on Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November lost money; calendar makers were the worst hit because they printed calendars years in advance and FDR made their calendars out of date for the next two years.
Schools were also disrupted by Roosevelt’s decision; most schools had already scheduled vacations and annual Thanksgiving Day football games by the time they learned of Thanksgiving’s new date and had to decide whether or not to reschedule everything. Moreover, many Americans were angry that Roosevelt tried to alter such a long-standing tradition and American values just to help businesses make more money.
Opposition grew. While governors usually followed the president’s lead with state proclamations for the same day, in 1939 some states took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential Proclamation. Some governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place because many families did not have the same day off as family members in other states and were therefore unable to celebrate the holiday together.
Twenty-three states observed Thanksgiving Day on November 23rd, twenty-three states celebrated on November 30th, and Texas and Colorado declared both Thursdays to be holidays.