Thanksgiving this year falls just two days shy of the beginning of December—the latest possible date it can occur. That means this year's holiday shopping season is the shortest it's been in a decade—a situation that puts a squeeze on large retail chains. It also means shoppers will have less time to get all their shopping done.
This isn't the first time retailers have had to grin and bear a shorter shopping season. Since 1950, Thanksgiving has fallen on the 28th eight times, and it'll happen again in 2019. Such is the nature of the fourth Thursday.
But that wasn't always the case. In 1939, the country was climbing by its fingernails out of the Great Depression, and keeping consumer spending high was a serious concern. There was just one problem: November of 1939 was a five-Thursday month, and President Lincoln's 1863 proclamation stated that Thanksgiving should fall on the last Thursday in November. That meant the holiday that year would fall on the 30th—the latest possible day.
Realizing that the shortened shopping season didn't bode well for the struggling economy, President Roosevelt heeded a request from the National Retail Dry Goods Association and moved Thanksgiving to the 23rd of the month—the fourth Thursday.
Dubbed "Franksgiving" by Atlantic City mayor Thomas Taggart, this rescheduled Turkey Day didn't go over well with everyone. Many retailers were pleased, and most states went along with the change, but 16 rebelled and kept the original date. A few states even split the difference and turned Franksgiving into a two-day holiday, giving people both Thursdays off. In general, public opinion was against the move, with a 62/38 split in a Gallup poll.
While larger retailers stood to profit from the switch, some small business owners saw it as a change made at their expense. "The small shopkeeper would prefer leaving Thanksgiving Day where it belongs," wrote Charles A. Arnold, the proprietor of a men's clothing shop. "If the large department stores are over-crowded during the shorter shopping period before Christmas, the overflow will come, naturally, to the neighborhood store."
Others complained about the effect on football games, the toll it would take on the calendar industry, the difficulty of being split between two days, and—yes—the commercialization of a cherished national holiday. See how far we've come?
But the shenanigans didn't stop there: With another late Thanksgiving on track for 1940, Roosevelt decided to move that one back a week, as well.
In this case, he changed the holiday to the 21st—the third Thursday of the month. Tired of the moveable feast, congress decided to officially fix Thanksgiving's date to the fourth Thursday in November. In other words, even if our modern trade lobbyists had requested it, President Obama would have had a difficult time pushing Thanksgiving back this year.
While it's certainly extraordinary that FDR moved a cherished national holiday to suit the holiday shopping season, it's almost more extraordinary to think that the commercialization of the holiday season is older than World War II. So next time you hear someone complaining that the holidays are getting too commercial, you can remind them that it's a tradition as old as the fireside chat.
Check out all these letters at the FDR Library.