Editorial

Fourth Thursday

November 22, 2012 

In one of his first speeches as president in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt vowed “bold, persistent experimentation” to perk up the economy. In a peculiar sense, the Thanksgiving Day we celebrated yesterday was a legacy of that pledge.

That’s because Thanksgiving, when it rolled around in 1939, was observed not on the final Thursday of November – as had been the practice for decades – but instead on the fourth Thursday, as it was this month.

In 1939, holding the holiday a week earlier than usual, by presidential proclamation, was intended as an economic stimulus. “Bold, persistent experimentation”? Not compared to many New Deal measures. But the change did set off a ruckus.

Roosevelt, by the late 1930s, had won two sweeping electoral victories but had not vanquished the Depression. Then, as now, holiday sales were big business, but the (quaint) custom was that Christmas merchandising absolutely didn’t start until after Thanksgiving.

So when, in mid-1939, department store owners worried that the five-Thursday November of that year would place Christmas only 20 shopping days after Thanksgiving, FDR took action.

Thanksgiving 1939, he proclaimed, would be on Nov. 23, not Nov. 30. The move pleased merchants but offended tradition – not to mention calendar makers, whose ’39 editions suddenly became out of date. Republicans pounced, with the (hugely) defeated Alf Landon of Kansas, FDR’s 1936 opponent, opining that the president had sprung the new date “upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

In some quarters, Nov. 23 became “Franksgiving.” Because states were free to set their own dates, there were quite a few “Republican Thanksgivings” on Nov. 30.

Things got even more convoluted in the two following years. Even though those Novembers had only four Thursdays, Roosevelt proclaimed a pair of next-to-last-Thursday Thanksgivings. Thus the observance fell on the 21st and 20th(!). Finally, Congress had had enough, and settled, with FDR (by then in his third term) on the arrangement we observe today, the fourth Thursday.

That seems about right, assuring Americans of a certain distance between two of the biggest holidays of the year. But as Christmas promotions edge ever closer to Halloween, and as “Christmas in July” sales become increasingly unironic, no great harm might come to retailing by a return to the days before Franklin D. Roosevelt and the decades of Thanksgivings celebrated on the last Thursday of the next-to-last month.

Surely Republicans would give Franks.

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