The Tradition of Thanksgiving: A Brief Modern History

The Tradition of Thanksgiving: A Brief Modern History

How did Thanksgiving Day end up being the fourth Thursday of November?  Like most everything in America, it was a big debate. The first national day of Thanksgiving, deemed a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin,’” was proclaimed by George Washington in 1789 at the request of the Federal Congress. The next seventy-four Thanksgivings fell on whatever day the current president chose. Finally in 1863 President Lincoln named Thanksgiving as the fourth or last Thursday in November.

In the 30s and early 40s Americans were particularly concerned with the exact date of Thanksgiving as it often fell at the very end of November, thus shortening the holiday shopping season. Economic stimulation was a major concern for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the rest of the country.  Many small store owners felt that the minimized shopping season would cripple their businesses and wrote to Roosevelt in hopes that he would “appreciate the importance that an additional week incorporated in this great holiday season” would bring.  So in 1939 the president proclaimed to move the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November.

However, some business had an opposite reaction, such as Arnold’s Men’s Shop in Brooklyn, New York: “We have waited many years for a late Thanksgiving to give us an advantage over the large stores.” New York University expressed a concern that any change in date would ruin their plans for scheduling the annual NYU v. Fordham Thanksgiving Day game.

FDR’s proclamation only succeeded in creating more confusion. Only thirty-two states followed his advice making Thanksgiving a holiday celebrated twice a year.  This lasted for two years until Congress passed a joint resolution in 1941 to officially set the date of the holiday to follow Roosevelt’s proclamation.

The current Thanksgiving date has remained the same for seventy years as an established legal holiday that may never change. In true American fashion the timing of this holiday was shaped by shopping and football. Nowadays, of course, we no longer worry about waiting for Black Friday to start the shopping mania. The day after Halloween is the perfect starting point.

Happy Holidays to all from LLM!

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