I don’t understand why anyone believes any of the popular myths about Thanksgiving. The truth is our Puritan forefathers were a humorless bunch who showed their devotion to God by going hungry - fasting. Their God was not interested in contentment, just punishment. And the only feasts they had were in the late summer, when food was plentiful. By late November they were already deep into their grain stores, and watery stew. Why would they be saying “thanks” for staving to death?
The mother of Thanksgiving was actually the widow and a poet (she wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), Sarah Hale. She was the 19th century version of Martha Stewart. For forty years Sarah was the editor of the prestigious “Godey’s Lady’s Book” magazine. And each November Sarah would bombard her 150,000 subscribers with recipes for Roast Turkey, Turkey stuffing, Turkey gravy, and Turkey stew. Now a lot of selling and some kitchen chemistry was required because 19th century turkeys were scrawny and almost exclusively dark meat. Sarah championed turkey because her middle class homemakers were on tight budgets, and the randy, strutting bird-brains cost less than half per pound what a chicken might cost.
But the real revolution came when, in 1934, the United States Department of Agriculture discovered the key to making turkeys palatable; artificial insemination. In 1932 the average American ate just two pounds of turkey a year. Today that amount is closer to twenty pounds.
But the popularity has come at a price - less sex for the turkey. Today’s buxom white breasted Tom Turkey is too obese to climb atop an equally buxom white breasted hen. Without human intervention, the Thanksgiving turkey would have bave gone extinct; ah, ceste se la guerre. But this brings us to my real topic, which is the year when Thanksgiving became a real la guerre; 1939
It was the third year of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second term as president. And Republicans were determined that he should not get a third term. However they were not in a good position to prevent it, holding only 177 seats in the House of Representatives (to 252 Democrats) and a paltry 23 seats in the Senate (to 69 Democrats). But then in August, Roosevelt handed Republicans an early Christmas present.
In July Franklin had received a visit from Fred Lazarus (above), head of the Federated Department Stores, the single biggest volume retail chain in America, including Macy’s and Bloomingdales in New York City, Filenes in Boston, and Strauss in Brooklyn. Fred pointed out to the President that in 1939, November would have five Thursdays; the second, the ninth, the sixteenth, the twenty-third and the thirtieth. And Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation calling for a day of Thanksgiving - first issued after the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and re-issued by Presidents every year after - specifically designated Thanksgiving as the final Thursday in November. That final Thursday would be, in the case of 1939, the 30th . The last time Thanksgiving had fallen on the fifth Thursday in November had been 1933. So that year, the Chistmas shopping season, which traditionally began the day after Thanksgiving, was just 20 days long that year, and had proven disastrous. Lazarus wanted Roosevelt to move the Turkey Day forward one week, to give merchants another week to tempt their customers into spending on Christmas. The President had also heard from the National Retail Dry Goods Association, as well as executives of Gimbels and Lord & Taylor.
Roosevelt listened to these pleas, and at a Press Conference held August 14th, he said that “I have been hearing from a great many people for the last six years, complaints that Thanksgiving came too close to Christmas”. Roosevelt reminded the press that Thanksgiving was still not an official holiday, and that each year the President picked the date. And, since "experts" believed that adding another week to the shopping season would increase sales by 10%, Franklin announced, this year, at least, he was moving Thanksgiving to Thursday, November 23rd., the fourth Thursday in November.
The first alarm went off the next day, when Fred Lazarus ran into his younger brother Simon. Simon Lazarus was was ranting over the change because it had disrupted his Ohio State Universities’ Thanksgiving day football game. “What da-n fool got the president to do this?” Simon barked at his brother, who, in fact, was the da-n fool himself. But that was just the beginning.
The Republican attorney general for Oregon, turned to poetry. “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November; All the rest have thirty-one; Until we hear from Washington.” A shopkeeper in Kokomo, Indiana preferred to protest in prose. He put up a sign in his window which read, “Do your shopping early. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.” Republican Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire urged the President to simply abolish winter by fiat. And Methodist minister Norman Vincent Peal got very outraged, charging it was “…contrary to the meaning of Thanksgiving for the president of this great nation to tinker with the sacred religious day with the specious excuse that it will help Christmas sales. The next thing we may expect Christmas to be shifted to May 1st to help the New York World’s Fair of 1940.”
Twenty-three governors went with the President’s switch, and twenty-two did not. Texas and Colorado couldn’t make up their minds and recognized both days as the holiday in question, although the Governor of Colorado, Ralph Carr, announced he would eat no turkey on the 23rd. The 30th was labeled as the Republican Thanksgiving, while the 23rd became the Democratic Thanksgiving, or, as Nucky Johnson, the recently indicted Republican mayor of Atlantic City called Franklin Roosevelt’s holiday, “Franksgiving”.
There were a few real problems hidden under this haze of invented outrage. Calendars could not be changed in time for the 1939 switch over. And schools were suddenly uncertain of vacation schedules. Some families found their holiday dinners split between the two dates. But it turned out that the real problem had been identified by Simon Lazarus, the angry brother.
The headline in the New York Times said it all; “PRESIDENT SHOCKS FOOTBALL COACHES” The coach of Little Ouachita college in Arkansas warned, “We'll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.'” Chairman of the Athletic Board at New York University wrote to Roosevelt, “…it has become necessary to frame football schedules three to five years in advance, and for both 1939 and 1940 we had arranged to play our annual football game with Fordham on Thanksgiving Day…” And then Roosevelt had changed the date!
A Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans wanted the President’s decision reversed. But it was too late for Roosevelt to change his mind in 1939. And FDR was too stubborn to admit defeat in November 1940, which also had five Thursdays, and was a Presidential election year. Despite the addition of even more politics into the mix, nine states switched from the Republican Thanksgiving to the Democratic one in 1940. That left just sixteen celebrating the “old” Thanksgiving. And that seems to have been enough of a victory for Roosevelt, that looking ahead to November 1941 (also with five Thursdays), he asked New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to study the sales figures. Was that extra week of shopping really helping the economy? In fact it had, but not very much; certainly not enough, considering all the angst and confusion the move had cost.
In early May of 1941, LaGuardia’s report informed the White House that “the early Thanksgiving date has not proved worthwhile". So on May 20th 1941, Roosevelt set Thanksgiving 1941 as the last Thursday in November. And in a rational world, that would have settled that. But, of course, politicians are not rational beings.
Being lawmakers the politicians in the House of Represnetatives decided to get involved by writting a bill, House joint resolution 41, which justified itself by pointing out that there was nothing to designate the day as a holiday except the annual President's Procamation (which Roosevelt had mentioned at the start of this mess!). Henceforth, the last Thursday in November would legally be Thanksgiving. But when HR 41 got to the Senate, those gentlemen felt compelled to improve upon it. They did this by changing one little word. Thanksgiving would now be, not the last Thursday in November as the House had intended, but the fourth Thursday in November. As Connecticut Senator John A. Danaher pointed out, in four out of five years, the last Thursday in November was the fourth Thursday in November, anyway. The House went along and Roosevelt signed the new law into effect on December 26, 1941. And amazingly, since that date, the Republicans had been determined not to notice that Roosevelt and the merchants won.
No matter what the right wing sympathizers may chortle about on their blog posts, Roosevelt got his earlier date for Thanksgiving. He just called it something else, so the Republicans would swallow the common sense of it without chocking on their own press releases. And that is something we can all be thankful for, in four years out of every five years, anyway.