By Dan O'Donnell
November 17, 2022
Politics, it’s often said, has infiltrated everything today. From movies to sports to even our most cherished holidays, some believe it has become all but impossible to put aside political differences and unite to celebrate together.
But this is hardly the first time: In fact, there was a time when America was so divided that Republicans and Democrats literally celebrated a holiday on different days.
This is the Forgotten History of Franksgiving.
The United States was ever so slowly emerging from the Great Depression, but retail sales were still anything but great. As the long, hot summer of 1939 drew to a close, Lew Hahn, the general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, issued a dire warning: Thanksgiving that year was as late as it possibly could be—November 30th—and that would shorten the Christmas shopping season by a full week.
With less time to shop, he figured, people would buy fewer gifts, and fewer gifts meant a far less merry Christmas for retailers. It was considered to be in poor taste for stores to begin Christmas sales or even put up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving, so there was nothing Lew Hahn could do to make up for that lost week.
Or was there? Lew was a longtime friend of Harry Hopkins, the Secretary of Commerce, and when he told him of his concerns, the two came up with a novel solution: What if Thanksgiving was simply moved up a week that year?The date was never set by law, only tradition, and it would give Americans an extra week of the Christmas season (and, of course, retailers like Lew an extra week to make money).
President Franklin D. Roosevelt loved the idea and on August 15th announced that the official date of Thanksgiving would be moved that year from November 30th to November 23rd, telling reporters at an informal news conference at his summer home that Thanksgiving was not a national holiday and there was nothing sacred about the fourth Thursday in November. What harm could it do to move it up a week?
Quite a bit, it turned out.College football coaches who had scheduled Thanksgiving Day games were suddenly left scrambling. As the New York Times reported, “to shift them to the proposed new Thanksgiving date…might mean playing two games in three days or even three within seven days if there are engagements on the preceding and following Saturdays.”
Most coaches, the Times noted, “were too dumbfounded for any comment other than expressions of amazement.”
Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1936 presidential election, had plenty to say about the move, calling it “another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt's] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration.
“If the change has any merit at all,” Landon added, “more time should have been taken working it out... instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”
On Halloween, when Roosevelt formally issued his proclamation calling for a day of national thanksgiving on November 23rd, there was an open revolt in the states.22 of them flatly refused to go along with Roosevelt’s plan and celebrated what became known as “Republican Thanksgiving” on November 30th. 23 states changed Thanksgiving to November 23rd, calling the new holiday “Franksgiving,” while three—Texas, Mississippi, and Colorado—opted to have two Thanksgivings on both the Republican and Democrat dates.
Public opinion of the change really did break down along party lines: A Gallup poll found that Republicans opposed it by a whopping 79 percent to 21 while Democrats narrowly favored it 52-48. Overall, the country was decidedly against the move by a 62-38 margin.
The change was widely mocked in popular radio comedies and newspaper comics, but Roosevelt was undeterred and proclaimed the third Thursday of November as “Franksgiving” for the next two years. For three straight Thanksgivings, Republicans celebrated on one day and Democrats on another.
In 1941, though, the Commerce Department reported that three years of Franksgivings had absolutely no impact on retail sales whatsoever. People, it seemed, shopped for Christmas whenever they pleased. In response, Congress issued a joint resolution designating the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving.
Two weeks after Thanksgiving 1941, the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, drawing it into World War II. Suddenly, the nation was united as it never had been before against a common enemy, and political spats over such trivialities as when to celebrate Thanksgiving no longer seemed appropriate. Roosevelt wasn’t so Hitler-like when he was fighting against the actual Hitler.
Just weeks after formally declaring war abroad, Roosevelt moved for peace at home: Signing the bill that forever designates the fourth Thursday of November as the national holiday Thanksgiving Day.