On Thanksgiving Day 1924, when Santa Claus showed up in Herald Square at the end of the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, an unwritten agreement was struck between retailers and consumers: Christmas would not come to the stores before Santa did. For years after that first parade, stores waited until the day after Thanksgiving, which was then the last Thursday of the month, to bring out their Christmas decorations, launch their Christmas ad campaigns and remind everyone incessantly that they had so much shopping do to before the big day.
Now it feels like the Christmas shopping season begins earlier and earlier every year, but the pact between stores and their customers used to be taken very seriously by both sides. In 1939, merchants already reeling from the Great Depression were worried that the late date of Thanksgiving that year (November 30th) and the shortened holiday shopping season would sink them. They didn't dare risk the public's anger by starting their Christmas sales or advertising early, though, so they appealed to the most powerful man in the free world.
In August of that year, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins of the looming disaster and presented a simple request for Hopkins' boss, President Franklin Roosevelt: bump Thanksgiving up by a week.
Roosevelt understood the retailers' concerns and agreed to move the holiday up to the second-to-last Thursday of the month, the 23rd, theoretically giving shoppers an extra week to spend more money and give the economy a much-needed boost. The move was not as sacrilegious as it might seem today. While presidents had customarily declared a day of thanksgiving be observed, Thanksgiving Day was not yet a federal holiday and the actual date had, historically, moved around a bit. It was only since Lincoln in 1863 that the last Thursday in November had become generally accepted as the date. Roosevelt apparently thought it was within his rights to move the holiday again if he felt the need.
The American public disagreed, and made their feelings known almost immediately after Roosevelt's announcement. Among the most notable complaints came from the board of selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts, the commonly accepted home of the first Thanksgiving. "Plymouth and Thanksgiving are almost synonymous," the chairman of the board said. "Merchants or no merchants, I can't see any reason for changing it."
The date change also disrupted the schedules of many college football teams, who traditionally ended their seasons with rivalry games on the holiday. Bill Walton, head football coach at the now-defunct Little Ouachita College threatened to “vote the Republican ticket if [Roosevelt] interferes with our football.”
The fuss was maybe bigger than it should have been. Since the day was not a federal holiday, Roosevelt's date switching really didn't mean much, and it was still up to the governors to decide when the holiday would be celebrated in their states. Traditionally, they'd simply follow the president's lead, but the public backlash made things a little more difficult. They had to divine their constituents' opinions, get a read on the state retail economy and decide if they wanted to cross the president or not.
Democrat Thanksgiving and Republican Thanksgiving
It turned out that things split pretty evenly down the middle and along party lines. While a Gallup poll showed that 59% of Americans disapproved of the date change, 22 states had decided to go along with Roosevelt's plan, 23 stuck with the old date and the remaining three decided to celebrate both days. In the press, November 30th was referred to as “Republican Thanksgiving” and the 23rd as “Democrat Thanksgiving” or, as Atlantic City Mayor Thomas Taggart dubbed it, “Franksgiving.”
Roosevelt declared an early second-to-last-Thursday Thanksgiving for the next two years, but soon had to face the facts. In 1941, the Wall Street Journal, armed with data from the 1939 and 1940 holiday shopping seasons, declared the move a bust that provided no real boost to retail sales. Roosevelt admitted his experiment had failed and, later that year, signed a joint Congressional resolution making Thanksgiving a federal holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November (so depending on how many weeks are in November in a given year, Thanksgiving will fall on either the last Thursday or the second-to-last Thursday). They were cutting it a little too close, though. Calendars already showed the proclaimed early holiday the week before on the third Thursday, and people had started making plans based around that, so the legislation had to sit for a year and went into effect in 1942.