How FDR tried, and failed, to change a national holiday.
In 1939, FDR decided to move Thanksgiving Day forward by a week. Rather than take place on its traditional date, the last Thursday of November, he decreed that the annual holiday would instead be celebrated a week earlier.
The reason was economic. There were five Thursdays in November that year, which meant that Thanksgiving would fall on the 30th. That left just 20 shopping days till Christmas. By moving the holiday up a week to Nov. 23, the president hoped to give the economy a lift by allowing shoppers more time to make their purchases and—so his theory went—spend more money.
Roosevelt made his decision in part on advice from Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins, who was in turn influenced by Lew Hahn, general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association. Hahn had warned Hopkins that the late Thanksgiving, Nov. 30, might have an "adverse effect" on the sale of "holiday goods."
In an informal news conference in August announcing his decision, FDR offered a little tutorial on the history of the holiday. Thanksgiving was not a national holiday, he noted, meaning that it was not set by federal law. According to custom, it was up to the president to pick the date every year.
It was not until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln ordered Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November, that that date became generally accepted, Roosevelt explained. To make sure that reporters got his point, he added that there was nothing sacred about the date.
Nothing sacred? Roosevelt might as well have commanded that roast beef henceforth would replace turkey as the star of the holiday meal, or that cranberries would be banned from the Thanksgiving table. The president badly misread public opinion. His announcement was front-page news the next day, and the public outcry was swift and loud.
First to complain was Plymouth, Mass., home of the Pilgrims and location of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. "Plymouth and Thanksgiving are almost synonymous," intoned the chairman of the town's board of selectmen, "and merchants or no merchants I can't see any reason for changing it."
College football coaches also objected. The United Press news service noted mildly that coaches would find the date change "a considerable headache." The Associated Press predicted that the Roosevelt plan would "kick up more clamor than a hot halfback running the wrong way." By 1939 Thanksgiving football had become a national tradition. Many colleges ended their football seasons with Thanksgiving Day games, a custom that dated back to the 19th century. In Democratic Arkansas, the football coach of Little Ouachita College threatened: "We'll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football."
FDR's proclamation of the date of Thanksgiving had the force of law only in the District of Columbia and the territories of Hawaii and Alaska. A few states mandated that Thanksgiving be marked on the date set by the president, but in most states governors issued pro forma ratifications of the date the president proclaimed.
Now, however, the celebration became a political hot potato. Governors had to read public opinion, examine the local business climate, consider political loyalties, and decide which date to select as the official Thanksgiving.
Do they stick with tradition and celebrate Thanksgiving on Nov. 30, or follow FDR's lead and change the date to Nov. 23? It wasn't long before people started referring to Nov. 30 as the "Republican Thanksgiving" and Nov. 23 as the "Democratic Thanksgiving" or "Franksgiving."
Public sentiment ran heavily against Roosevelt's plan. Ten days after the president's announcement, Gallup published the results of a national poll finding that 62% of Americans surveyed disapproved of the date change. By the time November arrived, the 48 states were nearly evenly divided. Twenty-three decided to stick with the old Thanksgiving, and 22 decided to adopt FDR's date—Texas, Mississippi and Colorado said they would celebrate on both days.
For the next two years, Roosevelt continued to move up the date of Thanksgiving, and more states resigned themselves to celebrating early. By 1941, however, the facts turned against Roosevelt.
By then, retailers had two years of experience with the early Thanksgiving, and data were available regarding the 1939 and 1940 Christmas shopping seasons. In mid-March 1941, The Wall Street Journal reported the results of a survey done in New York City. The Journal's headline put it succinctly: "Early Thanksgiving Not Worth Extra Turkey or Doll." Only 37% of stores surveyed favored the early date. In Washington, the federal government reported that the early Thanksgiving resulted in no boost to retail sales.
And so, on May 20, 1941, FDR called a press conference at the White House and announced that he was changing Thanksgiving Day back to its traditional date. The early Thanksgiving had been an "experiment," he said, and the experiment failed. It was too late to move the 1941 Thanksgiving back to the traditional date, but in 1942 Thanksgiving would revert to the last Thursday of the month. This was "the first time any New Deal experiment was voluntarily abandoned," a Washington Post columnist wrote.
Thankfully, there is a happy ending to this tale of Washington folly: On Dec. 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed a joint resolution passed by Congress making Thanksgiving a national holiday and mandating that it be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.
Ms. Kirkpatrick is a former deputy editor of the Journal's editorial page.