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An Unhappy Franksgiving


By Andrew Parsons

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt host Thanksgiving dinner at Warm Springs, GA, November 23, 1939. Courtesy of the Franklin Roosevelt Library.

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt host Thanksgiving dinner at Warm Springs, GA, November 23, 1939. Courtesy of the Franklin Roosevelt Library.

These days everyone seems to be concerned with the growing power of the executive branch. But there are limits to the public’s tolerance for a president’s authority…and apparently, it’s the holidays, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt discovered seventy-five years ago when he stood before the press, and casually announced that he was moving Thanksgiving.

The last time a president had meddled with the date of the holiday was seventy-five years before that, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it would fall on the last Thursday of November. But in 1939, the last Thursday fell at the very last day of the month, and retailers were concerned about the impact that would have on the Christmas shopping season. It basically meant a little over three weeks for Christmas shopping rather than a full month, especially concerning as the country was emerging from the Great Depression.

A letter from Shelby O. Bennett of Shinnston, W. Va. protesting the change. Courtesy of the Franklin Presidential Library.

A letter from Shelby O. Bennett of Shinnston, W. Va. protesting the change. Courtesy of the Franklin Presidential Library.

Letters soon poured in. Senator Styles Bridges, a Republican from New Hampshire, was one of many political enemies who claimed FDR’s Thanksgiving proclamation amounted to executive overreach. He opined, “I wish Mr. Roosevelt would abolish Winter. Millions of people can’t enjoy their vacations for thinking that in a few months they will again be paying tribute to the fuel barons.”

But it wasn’t just political. Concerned citizens, like insurance salesman Robert Benson from South Dakota, also expressed outrage. “After all this country is not entirely money-minded,” he wrote claiming the plan took the spirit out of the holiday season. “We need a certain amount of idealism and sentiment to keep up the morale of our people, and you, would even take that from us… and you must remember we are not running a Russia or communistic government.

Shelby Bennett of Shinnston, West Virginia took a more sarcastic approach. “I see by the paper this morning where you want to change Thanksgiving Day to November 23 of which I heartily approve. Thanks,” he said before listing a few more changes to make.
“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
4. Have Thursday to be Pay Day with time and one-half for overtime
5. Require everyone to take Friday and Saturday off for a fishing trip down the Potomac.”

Atlantic City’s mayor, a fellow Democrat, dubbed the president’s proposal “Franksgiving.” And it was parodied on radio, and on the big screen including a 1940 Three Stooges short where Larry points out that the 4th of July can’t be in October. Curly responds, “You never know. Look what they did to Thanksgiving!”

Many Americans refused to budge. Twenty-two states kept Thanksgiving’s traditional date on their books and few states played it down the middle, deciding to observe both the old and new Thanksgivings.

So why all the fuss? First, it messed up people’s calendars. Football games would have had to be rescheduled, and people weren’t too happy about that. Football was already a Thanksgiving pastime at this point.

But there was a larger issue. In his six and a half years in office, FDR had issued well over two thousand executive orders. That amounted to almost one per day, which more than any president before or after FDR. He had also attempted to pack more justices onto the Supreme Court so that his laws wouldn’t be overturned. While the Great Depression raged, this wasn’t as big of a deal for Americans, but as unemployment went down and suffering eased, many were ready to stand up in protest.  “Franksgiving” became the latest in a long line of unilateral declarations by the president.

Alf Landon, FDR’s 1936  erstwhile election opponent, characterized it as “another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt’s] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

Franksgiving remained in place the following year as well. But by 1941, it was clear that moving the holiday wasn’t having the desired economic impact. The president admitted that much. So in November of that year, FDR signed a joint resolution by Congress setting in stone the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

 This is from our show on fears of executive power. Listen to the whole show here.