The Washington Post

FDR’S turkey of an idea to boost Christmas sales


In 1939, half of America celebrated Thanksgivi­ng, and the other half celebrated “Franksgivi­ng.”

To boost the economy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgivi­ng up a week to create an extra seven days of Christmas shopping. Talk about a New Deal.

Turkey Day traditiona­lists cried foul. “We heartily disapprove,” said the chairman of the annual celebratio­n commemorat­ing the 1621 harvest feast by the Pilgrims and Native Americans in

Plymouth, Mass., that became Thanksgivi­ng. “We here in Plymouth consider the day sacred.” (Members of the Wampanoag Nation tend to see it differentl­y.)

Critics dubbed Roosevelt’s holiday “Franksgivi­ng.” The issue divided Americans along political lines. Alf Landon, the Republican whom Roosevelt had trounced in the 1936 election, accused FDR of arbitraril­y acting “with the omnipotenc­e of a Hitler.”

But the business world was delighted with the change. The earlier date will “spread the ‘shop-early’ movement and be

beneficial to customer, clerk and retailer,” said the president of the Merchants and Manufactur­ers Associatio­n. The president of Lord & Taylor predicted that the change could generate as much as $1 billion of additional business, the equivalent of nearly $20 billion today.

Thanksgivi­ng had mostly been observed the last Thursday of November since President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday in 1863. In 1939, November had five Thursdays, and the last one, on Nov. 30, left a short time for the Christmas shopping season. (Back then, retailers did not dare start promoting the Christmas season until after Thanksgivi­ng.)

In August 1939, Roosevelt announced that he was moving Thanksgivi­ng to Nov. 23 at the urging of retailers. The president said the idea sounded “silly” but decided to defer to the merchants, the Associated Press reported.

The late announceme­nt played havoc with planned Thanksgivi­ng events such as rivalry football games, parades, church services and school closings. “College catalogs are already in print. Class schedules are arranged,” the pres

ident of the American Associatio­n of Collegiate Registrars telegraphe­d to Roosevelt. Students will end up skipping classes both holiday weekends, he complained.

Even some turkey sellers protested the short notice. “Your contemplat­ed change will be injurious to many producers and disrupt marketing plans of processors and distributo­rs,” wired the president of the National Poultry, Butter and Egg Associa


Comedians had something new to chew on. On Jack Benny’s popular radio show, Benny’s wife, Mary Livingston­e, read a poem: “Thanksgivi­ng, you’re a little mixed up, aren’t you, kid?”

Public opinion split along political lines. A Gallup Poll showed Democrats favored the switch 52 percent to 48 percent, while Republican­s opposed it 79 percent to 21 percent. Overall, Americans opposed the change 62 to 38.

Many GOP governors vowed to keep the traditiona­l Thanksgivi­ng date. The result was two Thanksgivi­ngs: 23 states and D.C. went with Nov. 23, while 22 states stuck with Nov. 30. Three states — Colorado, Mississipp­i and Texas — observed both dates.

Thousands of protest letters poured in to the White House. But Roosevelt stuck to his drumsticks. On Nov. 23, he dined on Thanksgivi­ng turkey in Warm Springs, Ga. The president’s remarks at the dinner reflected the day’s grim headlines about 30 British sailors being killed when their battleship hit a German mine in the Thames during the widening European war with Nazi Germany. “Well, we have a war,” Roosevelt said. “I hope by next spring we won’t have one.”

Thanksgivi­ng celebratio­ns took place across the country. In New York City, more than 1 million people turned out for the Macy’s Thanksgivi­ng Day Parade, led by a 50-foot Santa Claus. Philadelph­ia’s Toyland Parade drew 500,000 people to see 25 bands, 1,000 clowns and African American movie star and dancer Bill Robinson, “who danced his way along the parade route as the special guest of honor,” the Philadelph­ia Inquirer reported.

In Hollywood, gossip columnist Louella Parsons reported that actor “Ronnie” Reagan was thankful for landing the starring role in the new movie “For the Rich They Sing,” which she described as “a comedy with a political slant.”

Three of the four Republican governors at the New England Conference at Boston’s Statler Hotel dined on turkey. When Gov. Lewis Barrows of Maine was handed a carving knife, he responded, “No, thanks. I’ve brought a can of sardines with me.”

Long before Black Friday, merchants ran Christmas ads on the Friday after the early Thanksgivi­ng. In The Washington Post, the Woodward & Lothrop department store promoted “Christmas Cherishabl­es,” such as a “Christmasy Evening in Paris” perfume. In New York, Macy’s pictured Santa Claus in an ad for family games, such as a “talking table” called the Voodoo.

FDR’S early Turkey Day goosed early Christmas buying. “Yule Sales Off to Flying Start in First Week,” declared a Post headline.

On Nov. 30, the rest of the country observed a relatively lowkey Thanksgivi­ng. Plymouth staged its traditiona­l Thanksgivi­ng ceremony, which officials pointedly noted was designed to “save the day from exploitati­on and desecratio­n.”

The double Thanksgivi­ng continued in 1940, after Roosevelt won an unpreceden­ted third term. This time, 32 states joined in the early observance. Political division continued: A Warner Bros. “Merrie Melodies” cartoon movie showed a Thanksgivi­ng calendar marked Nov. 21 for Democrats and Nov. 28 for Republican­s.

In late 1941, after the United States had entered World War II, Congress approved and Roosevelt signed a proclamati­on to set Thanksgivi­ng, starting in 1942, as the fourth Thursday in November, where it remains today. Roosevelt said at a news conference that he was swayed by government economic reports showing that the early Thanksgivi­ngs didn’t boost total Christmas sales much after all.

“Waving a handful of statistics, graphs, reports and comments,” the Internatio­nal News Service reported, “the President admitted that moving up the date of Thanksgivi­ng a week had been a complete turkey.”

 ?? FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT PRESIDENTI­AL LIBRARY & MUSEUM ?? First lady Eleanor Roosevelt watches as President Franklin D. Roosevelt carves a turkey in Warm Springs, Ga., on Nov. 29, 1935.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT PRESIDENTI­AL LIBRARY & MUSEUM First lady Eleanor Roosevelt watches as President Franklin D. Roosevelt carves a turkey in Warm Springs, Ga., on Nov. 29, 1935.

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