The True Story Behind ‘Franksgiving’: Fact-checking Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Change

In America’s tapestry of traditions, the Thanksgiving holiday stands out as an emblem of gratitude, autumnal festivities, and familial gatherings. Part of its intrigue, unbeknownst to many, lies in a historical wrinkle known as ‘Franksgiving’. This shift of the holiday’s celebration from the last to the third Thursday of November, orchestrated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his tenure, marks an intriguing detour from tradition. This unprecedented measure in 1939, while marred by controversy and comedic skewering, provides valuable insights into the nation’s adaptability and the intersection of politics and societal customs.

Background of ‘Franksgiving’

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‘Franksgiving’, an unusual word that you might have stumbled upon in history books or during holiday-themed trivia, is actually an integral part of the fascinating U.S. history. It stems from one of the most popular American national holidays, Thanksgiving, and primarily sprang from a decision made during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, hence the moniker ‘Franksgiving.’

The term ‘Franksgiving’ is an amalgamation of ‘Franklin’ and ‘Thanksgiving’. It originates from the year 1939 when Franklin D. Roosevelt, the then president of the United States, broke with tradition and moved the date of Thanksgiving one week earlier. He accomplished this through issuing a presidential proclamation.

The backdrop for Roosevelt’s decision was the Great Depression, which marked an era of severe economic downturn in America. It was the president’s theory that moving Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of the month, instead of the traditional last Thursday, would extend the holiday shopping season and thus, stimulate economic activity.

However, Roosevelt’s decision sparked considerable public and political controversy. Half of the United States clung to the traditional last Thursday celebration while the other half followed the president’s proclamation. Thanksgiving, a holiday usually known for bringing people together, resulted in a divided nation for those years.

The term ‘Franksgiving’ was coined by Atlantic City Mayor Thomas Taggart as a derisive descriptor for this new date, showcasing the widespread criticism and denouncement Roosevelt faced. The public outcry led to Congress passing a law in 1941 that officially established the fourth Thursday in November as the national day for Thanksgiving, setting an end to this disarray.

The term ‘Franksgiving’ is therefore a historical footnote in the US’s socioeconomic and political history. While it is not so commonly known or referenced in our day-to-day realm, understanding its origin provides us with a glimpse into a tumultuous period in the U.S. journey through the Great Depression.

Whether you’re at a holiday-themed quiz or simply delving into another chapter of American history, remembering ‘Franksgiving’ will remind us how national traditions can become battlegrounds in times of economic and political tension.

Rating

True. The term ‘Franksgiving’ indeed originates from a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to move the date of Thanksgiving in the hopes of stimulating the economy during the Great Depression.


Image of a newspaper article from the 1930s with the headline 'Franksgiving Controversy'

Thanksgiving: A Broader Historical Perspective

Tracing the Date of Thanksgiving Through History Prior to ‘Franksgiving’

Shifting through the pages of history, it becomes apparent that the date of Thanksgiving has not always been fixed to the fourth Thursday of November. Prior to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision – which was controversial enough to earn the moniker ‘Franksgiving’ – the historical accounts suggest variability in the celebration’s date.

Checking the earliest records, it is revealed that the Pilgrims and Native Americans in Plymouth, Massachusetts, reportedly held the first Thanksgiving in 1621. However, it bore little resemblance to the traditional holiday we recognize today. It was primarily a three-day celebration of the bountiful harvest, not confined to a single day.

Subsequently, individual colonies and states sporadically celebrated Thanksgiving throughout the year, with no established national date. Governor Bradford of Plymouth started the tradition of a Thanksgiving day in the autumn of 1623, but this did not equate to an annual fixed date.

George Washington, the first President of the United States, proclaimed a nationwide day of Thanksgiving in 1789, thereby standardizing it somewhat. This proclamation, however, appointed it on the last Thursday of November. Several states followed suit, but it was not universally recognized, and states were free to choose their preferred dates for celebration.

A significant shift was brought about by Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent editor and writer. Known as the “Godmother of Thanksgiving,” she used her platform in the 19th century to advocate for a nationwide Thanksgiving Day to promote unity. Her tireless lobbying culminated in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. This marked the first time Thanksgiving was standardized on a national level.

However, the last Thursday rule presented issues when November had five Thursdays. This occurrence happened in 1933 and 1939, thus contributing to the backdrop for the alteration Roosevelt would make in subsequent years, aptly named ‘Franksgiving.’

It is also crucial to note, the Thanksgiving holiday was far from the cultural norm of a long weekend it is today. Traditionally, work still continued until Saturday if Thanksgiving fell earlier in the week. Not until the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 were federal holiday weekends extended to three days, though this did not directly affect Thanksgiving.

Reflecting on the historical narrative of Thanksgiving, it becomes apparent that Roosevelt’s decision was not the first time the date of the holiday shifted. The roots of Thanksgiving are filled not merely with turkey and stuffing, but with variations and conflicts over the optimal time for celebratory recognition. The end result is the neighbourly celebratory feast we have come to know and love; understanding its history adds richness to the table each year.

A historical image showing the early celebration of Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together to give thanks for the bountiful harvest and unity.

Roosevelt’s Decision and the Reasons behind it

Delving deeper into the motivations behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to move the date of Thanksgiving, it’s critical to remember the economic situation during his presidency. The United States was deep in the throes of the Great Depression, and retail businesses were feeling the pinch. The holiday shopping season traditionally kicked off after Thanksgiving, so in a year when November had five Thursdays, retailers were concerned about the shortened shopping season’s potential impact on their profits.

It is also noteworthy that at this period, advertising holiday sales before Thanksgiving was considered ethically inappropriate. Thus, retailers requested President Roosevelt to move the holiday up by a week to extend the shopping season. In 1939, acquiescing to these requests, Roosevelt announced that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the second-to-last Thursday of November instead of the last.

But Roosevelt’s decision was not met with nationwide acceptance. Some states chose to celebrate the holiday on its traditional date, while others adopted the new date. This split led to widespread confusion and earned the holiday the derogatory nickname “Franksgiving,” a portmanteau of “Franklin” and “Thanksgiving.”

Consumer spending didn’t increase as anticipated during this period, and the overall reception to the change was predominantly negative. Concerns were raised about how the shift disrupted regular activities like seasonal football games that were traditionally played on Thanksgiving Day.

In 1941, to mitigate the controversy and confusion, Congress intervened, passing a law declaring the fourth Thursday of November as the official Thanksgiving Day. From this point on, Thanksgiving could fall on the last Thursday of November, but never the penultimate.

To further unravel the context of Roosevelt’s decision, it’s important to understand the work week norms of the period. During Roosevelt’s presidency, it was standard for American workers to continue their work week until Saturday. When Thanksgiving fell earlier in the week, this meant a disruption of the traditional long weekend.

Finally, the deputy of the shifting tides in American labor laws came with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968. This act moved several federal holidays to Mondays, establishing three-day weekends for the nation’s workforce. This piece of legislation, however, did not affect Thanksgiving, which remained on the fourth Thursday of November.

So, while Roosevelt’s decision to shift Thanksgiving was initially met with controversy and mismatched national observance, ultimately it resulted in a law standardizing the date of this cherished American holiday.

Image depicting President Franklin D. Roosevelt during a Thanksgiving celebration, showing the historical context of the text.

Photo by libraryofcongress on Unsplash

Impact and Legacy of ‘Franksgiving’

As Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision reverberated across the nation, multiple immediate impacts were felt, causing ripples that affect us to today. One pressing issue sprouted from the immediate disarray caused by dissension among states for the observance date of Thanksgiving. In 1939 and the two following years, states were divided, with 23 states and District of Columbia adhering to Roosevelt’s new date, 22 states sticking to the last Thursday of November, and 3 states electing to hold celebrations on both days. This discord resulted in significant disruption to planned activities, especially in schools and football games, a staple Thanksgiving tradition. Notably, this sparked outrage and ridicule from critics dubbing the debacle as “two Thanksgivings.”

Interestingly, consumer spending during this period did not significantly boost as predicted. The rationale behind the date change, aimed to stimulate economic revival by extending the holiday shopping season, had little to no impact on sales. The shift was perceived negatively by the public, causing an adverse effect instead. Coupled with mounting backlash, Congress decided to intervene.

In 1941, Congress officially legislated the fourth Thursday of November as the national day of Thanksgiving, thereby standardizing the observance day and resolving the three-year long feud over dates. This act undid Roosevelt’s decision, positioning Thanksgiving permanently within November’s last week, but not specifically requiring the last Thursday.

The effects of these legislative changes are undeniably present in today’s celebration of Thanksgiving. The persisting tradition of holding the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, an emblematic start to the holiday shopping season, on the moved date is a lasting legacy. Traces of ‘Franksgiving’ also persist in modern-day economic practices. Despite the derived holiday “Black Friday” not emerging until the 1950s, the similarly intended push for economic stimulation predates it by two decades.

Additionally, Roosevelt’s decision has played a role in shaping present labor culture. A customary work week in the 1930s typically maintained business hours until Saturday. This norm evolved with the introduction of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, an act primarily proposed to establish consistency in the observance of federal holidays. Nevertheless, Thanksgiving remained as a ‘fixed-point’ holiday, held on the fourth Thursday of November, rather than migrating to the nearest Monday as other holidays did thereby preserving the tradition initiated by Roosevelt.

In conclusion, Roosevelt’s short-lived measure to stimulate the economy, despite its initial controversy and limited success, has imparted an enduring influence. From the start of the commercial holiday season to the four-day weekend most workers now enjoy, ‘Franksgiving’ continues to shape America’s celebration of this holiday, showing that even resounding public backlash doesn’t necessarily signal failure, but can instead provide pathways for long-lasting change.



Image of a Thanksgiving feast with family and friends gathered around a table.

Reflecting on the term ‘Franksgiving’, we see it as more than a humorous historical anecdote. The tale of ‘Franksgiving’, although couched in controversy, ultimately highlights the nation’s resilience in adapting its deep-rooted traditions for economic considerations. Moreover, the aftermath of the decision underscores the American democratic process in action, with the public response and subsequent legislative adjustments refining our understanding of this national holiday’s significance. The legacy of ‘Franksgiving’, far from a mere quirk of history, persists in the ongoing recognition of Thanksgiving and conversations about its observance, securing its place in the multi-faceted narrative of American culture.