Franksgiving teaches us important lessons about the meaning of Thanksgiving – and the dangers of executive power.
Pilgrim decorations, football, cranberry sauce, and arguments with your crazy cousin over politics. There’s one magical day every year when all of these classic American traditions come together at one table — Thanksgiving.
On the fourth Thursday of November, we come together with friends and family to give thanks for everything we have.
However, Thanksgiving hasn’t always brought Americans together.
Shortened Christmas Season Causes Retailers to Panic
From 1939 to 1941, Thanksgiving became a hot-button issue that drove a wedge between friends and family.
Prior to 1939, commercial retailers and the American public maintained an unspoken agreement: the Christmas shopping season would not begin until after Thanksgiving.
However, Thanksgiving happened to fall on November 30th in 1939 — leaving only 24 days for shoppers to purchase presents for their friends and family. Retailers panicked, worried that the shortened Christmas season would deal a devastating blow to stores and businesses across America.
Retailers Choose to Act
Fearing the worst, retailers reached out to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and asked him to move Thanksgiving up a week in order to save their Christmas sales. FDR sympathized with the store owners and issued an executive order moving Thanksgiving back one week to November 23.
FDR’s decision turned out to be a huge mistake. The American public interpreted his decision as an attack on a sacred American tradition, football, and turkey.
Americans Fight Back Against “Franksgiving”
FDR’s political opponents pounced on the blunder, labeling the order as executive overreach and lambasting it as un-American. Kansas Governor Payne Ratner proclaimed “we do not destroy tradition merely to gain newspaper headlines,” the mayor of Atlantic City dubbed the new date “Franksgiving,” and FDR’s presidential opponent Alf Landon said he issued the executive order with the “omnipotence of a Hitler.”
After all of the protest and disagreement, only 23 of 48 states ended up moving the holiday completely, while several ended up celebrating on both days.
In 1942, FDR moved Thanksgiving back to its traditional date. Retail sales hadn’t improved as a result of the date change and FDR conceded that his executive order was simply an “experiment” that “had not worked.”
The United States Congress issued a joint resolution declaring that Thanksgiving would fall on the fourth Thursday of every November — essentially ensuring that the holiday would no longer fall on the last day of the month and avoiding further controversy.
What Can Americans Learn from This Piece of Lost History?
What can Americans learn from the battle for Thanksgiving?
A couple thoughts come to mind.
First, divisive partisanship is always just around the corner. Even a holiday like Thanksgiving can turn into Hitler comparisons and a political stick with which to beat your opponents. It’s important that Americans remember to put aside political differences and use holidays like Thanksgiving to come together as one.
Second, short-sighted executive overreach can set off a wave of unintended consequences. FDR found out the hard way — executive orders sidestep the legislative bodies elected by Americans and don’t always represent what the majority of Americans want out of their government. It’s important that the president stays within his mandate and respects the boundaries of the executive branch.
Finally, Thanksgiving is a time for Americans to come together and be grateful for what we have. FDR’s mistake in 1939 teaches us that Thanksgiving is about tradition and giving thanks — not commercial sales and material goods. Thanksgiving is a lot more than just the beginning of Christmas shopping season — it’s a time for unity and thanks across America.