The Story of “Franksgiving”; or When Bad Things Happen to Good Holidays

We can always count on the federal government to come up with insane solutions to our problems.

Budget deficit? Tighten belts on all forms of spending except defense, which gets a blank check to fund whatever piece-of-crap technology they want (provided the appropriate Congressman gets his cut).

Farm prices too low? Dole out generous checks to farmers for doing nothing—just make sure to give them a fancy name like “subsidy” instead of “sit-on-your-ass check.”

Terrorist threat? Defy historical expectations and start not one, but TWO land wars in Asia, because that worked out so well for Alexander, Napoleon, and Hitler.

In 1939, America again resorted to a hare-brained experiment to resolve a national crisis: an experiment with a holiday. For three years, Thanksgiving would be the center of a political and economic experiment that split families, upended governments and drove political debate far in excess of its results.

That solution was “Franksgiving”, one of the greatest blunders of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.

By 1939, the nation had gone through two economic downturns. The first, of course, was the 1929 stock market crash that would trigger the Great Depression. From 1933 to 1937, Americans pinned their hopes on the slew of government programs created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. For a while, at least, things were looking up. Banks had stabilized, unemployment bottomed out, businesses were growing again. By all indicators, the economy was back to what it was prior to the 1929 crash.

Then the bottom fell out.

By 1937, things were going so well that his advisors suggested that Roosevelt start to cut back on some of the programs—an incredible case of bad timing. The massive cutbacks in the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration coincided with a sharp economic downturn in the summer of 1937. The reasons for the “Roosevelt Recession” are still hotly debated. What’s certain is that during the 13 months of the recession, unemployment, production, and spending sunk to 1933 levels: the low point of the Depression.

Roosevelt tried everything to revive the economy. A new wave of anti-trust cases opened up, led by Thurman Arnold at the Department of Justice. Crop loans, crop insurance against natural disasters as well as farm subsidies were pushed through Congress in February 1938. In April, a massive spending bill rolled back the cuts made the previous year—to the tune of $5 billion.

Nothing worked as the administration hoped. To make matters worse, Lew Hahn and Harry Hopkins took a look at the 1939 calendar and shat in their pants.

Hahn, the general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, noticed an unfortunate accident in the holiday shopping season. Since the Civil War, the Thanksgiving holiday (NOT an official holiday yet) was customarily declared by the President for the last Thursday in November. In 1939, November had 5 Thursdays, so that Thanksgiving would fall on November 30th, leaving only 20 days for the holiday shopping season. Hahn immediately notified Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins, one the New Deal “masterminds”, and they both made a mad dash for the President.

In Roosevelt’s mind, moving Thanksgiving made logical sense. It was never a national holiday fixed into law, after all: each President since Lincoln had simply followed Abe’s lead and declared the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving. Moving the holiday was his prerogative, and nothing less than the future of the New Deal was at stake.

Besides, the American people won’t mind changing the date of a day that to most is simply a massive gorgefest, right?

Franklin Delano, how wrong you were.

In two separate decrees, on August 31 and October 31, 1939, Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would be moved up one week earlier for 1939 and 1940. In his proclamations, he reminded the American people of the non-official nature of the holiday, its history as a presidential custom, and the economic need for a longer shopping season.

America was having none of it. For three years, the United States was a divided nation every November.

Since Roosevelt’s decrees used the “moral authority” of the President, they had no legal enforcement. It was up to the individual states to adopt the new date as law, along with the new allotment of holiday time for state and municipal employees. The then-48 states in the Union split almost perfectly along party lines. 23 states, along with the District of Columbia, voted to switch to the new date. 22 states, especially the then-Republican stronghold of New England, decided to keep the original date. Three states (Mississippi, Colorado and Texas) split the difference, and made both dates holidays.

Even before adoption by the state’s, the plan aroused nationwide opposition. Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s GOP opponent in the 1936 election, stated that his declaration to move Thanksgiving was

“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.”

Strong words, and this from a MODERATE Republican. Today, Landon would be bosom buds with Nancy Pelosi.

The change upset the lives of millions of Americans. Flight schedules, train reservations, and hotel accommodations all had to be readjusted to the new date. Printers, especially calendar manufacturers, went ballistic since their entire runs were now obsolete. College football programs, which depended on the Thanksgiving game for their season finales, now had to abruptly adjust their schedules: most conferences forbad games played after Thanksgiving. Colleges, schools and institutes make a frantic change in their vacation plans. Some students left school on one Thanksgiving and came home to nothing, since their home state kept the other date.

The dates even acquired names in popular culture. The earlier date was called “Democratic Thanksgiving” and the traditional date became “Republican Thanksgiving.” It was easy to tell the neighbor’s political leanings through the collective aroma of turkeys on one week or the next.

The earlier date was soon given a name befitting a monstrous bureaucratic decision. Atlantic City mayor Thomas Taggert, clearly noting the culprit in all this, derisively dubbed the earlier date “Franksgiving” after its unfortunate founder.

Nationally, even though more Democrats than Republicans approved the change, fully 62% of the American people disapproved of the date—and they made their voices heard for three years.

Thousands of letters poured into the White House, mostly with negative feedback on Roosevelt’s decision. Sometimes the letters are downright heartbreaking. Consider Eleanor Blydenburgh, a student from Connecticut attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn:

“Our directors announced that our school vacation would begin on the twenty-third of November and last until the twenty-sixth because New York, being your home state, is abiding by your decision. However, where I come from, Connecticut, they’ll be observing it on the thirtieth of November as usual. Really, this situation makes my heart ache because I love our Thanksgiving Holidays as much if not a bit more than our Christmas Holidays.”

Most of the letters were mean gripes about the inconvenience of the change. One particular letter, from Shelby Bennett in West Virginia, gets kudos from the Neighborhood for its oozing snarkiness:

“Mr. President:

I see by the paper this morning where you want to change Thanksgiving Day to November 23 of which I heartily approve. Thanks.

Now, there are some things that I would like done and would appreciate your approval:

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.”

For anyone familiar with the Potomac in the late 1930s, that last one should’ve been treated like a death threat.

Yet the greatest pox upon the Franksgiving experiment came in a Commerce Department survey on May 20, 1941. It found that the change in Thanksgiving caused no significant impact on holiday sales. The experiment was a complete failure.

The administration, seeing more important priorities on the horizon (priorities named Hitler and Tojo), decided to quietly push through a joint resolution through Congress, and signed on December 26, 1941. It stated that Thanksgiving was designated an official holiday to be observed on the fourth November of every calendar year. From 1942 to 1956, each of the states adopted the new standard, albeit haphazardly. Texas lollygagged until the end, probably to give their football teams one more weekend on the gridiron.

So what did we learn from “Franksgiving”?

Roosevelt’ s holiday experiment was well within his rights. It was completely legal, since the holiday was only enacted through a presidential proclamation. Furthermore, at least on paper, there was a logical reason to it: more time to shop could possibly stimulate the economy.
Yet having the legal authority to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you ought to do it. Barack Obama has the legal right to punch in the launch codes into the nuclear football and send our ICBMs into central Asia, but he’s not fool enough to do something like that.

Like a nuclear attack, messing with a holiday has extensive collateral damage, though not as bad as vaporized relatives and crippling nuclear cancers. America was so used to the old holiday that its own institutions adjusted to a day that, in reality, could’ve been changed at will. Roosevelt’s good intentions caused three years of chaos, from the train station to the college campus and to the football field.

Franksgiving would never get us out of the Depression: World War II did. It took long, bloody conflicts on two continents to realize that certain things shouldn’t be monkeyed with.

It was more important to be thankful than to worry about the day when we could be thankful.

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