On Aug. 14, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt invented a new holiday: Franksgiving. He did it by declaring Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth instead of the last Thursday of November.
There was nothing sacred about the last Thursday, Roosevelt told reporters.
The change infuriated Republicans, football coaches, college students, turkey growers, calendar makers and the Town of Plymouth, Mass.
One political opponent went so far as to compare Roosevelt to Hitler.
Roosevelt had a good reason for declaring Franksgiving on the fourth rather than the last Thursday in November. The country still suffered from the Great Depression, and there were five Thursday that November.
Roosevelt wanted to extend a short, 20-day Christmas shopping season to help retail merchants sell more products. Back then, stores didn’t put out Christmas merchandise until after Thanksgiving.
Increasing profits and spending during this period, Roosevelt hoped, would help bring the country out of the Depression.
Fred Lazarus, Jr., founder of Federated Department Stores (later Macy’s), gets the credit for persuading Roosevelt to push Thanksgiving back a week to stretch the Christmas shopping season.
It was the first time the last-Thursday tradition established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 was broken.
Republicans called Roosevelt’s declaration an affront to the memory of Lincoln. And in the spirit of partisanship still with us today, people began referring to the ‘Republican Thanksgiving’ (last Thursday) and the ‘Democratic Thanksgiving’ (fourth Thursday) as ‘Franksgiving.’
Never mind that New England had celebrated Thanksgiving at various times since the 17th century. The Continental Congress, for example, had in 1777 declared the first national Thanksgiving in December following the patriot victory at Saratoga.
Howls of Protest
Fast and furious came the backlash. The pastor of Plymouth’s Church of the Pilgrimage called Franksgiving ‘a calloused attack on a religious tradition.’ The chairman of the town’s board of selectmen ‘heartily disapproved.’
Alf Landon, who Roosevelt defeated in 1936, took his denunciation further: The president, he said, had changed the date ‘to an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.’
Football coaches abhorred Franksgiving. Colleges had long ago scheduled the last football game of the season on Thanksgiving Day. Deans complained they had to change the entire academic schedule.
An Ohio printer wrote one of the many thousands of letters protesting the change. Calendar makers, he wrote, would go bankrupt.
The president of the National Poultry, Butter and Egg Association sent a telegram to the White House denouncing Franksgiving, saying it would injure turkey farmers and disrupt marketing plans of processors and distributors.
A House Divided
Roosevelt’s declaration would have thrown a monkey wrench into many Thanksgiving plans. Many simply chose to ignore it. A presidential declaration wasn’t legally binding in the states, and 22 chose to ignore it. So half the country celebrated Thanksgiving on the fifth Thursday, and half on the fourth.
All six New England states, which had elected Republican governors, held Thanksgiving on the last Friday. Texas couldn’t decide and declared both the fourth and fifth Thursdays government holidays.
Roosevelt repeated Franksgiving in 1940 and 1941, declaring Nov. 21, 1940 and Nov. 20, 1941 the days to celebrate.
Again, half the country ignored him. George Gallup took a poll and found 62 percent of Americans disapproved of Franksgiving. The survey showed a majority, especially Republicans, ‘are in favor of letting the nation’s turkeys live a week longer,’ Gallup said.
Most damning of all, Franksgiving gave no boost to retail sales.
Finally, Roosevelt formally admitted his mistake and in 1941 signed a bill into law officially making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
This story about Franksgiving was updated in 2021.