Save the holiday of Thanksgiving: Move it to the second Thursday of November

November 28, 2013
Customers rush Potomac Mills Mall at the start of last year's Black Friday shopping. (Richard A. Lipski/For The Washington Post)
Customers rush Potomac Mills Mall at the start of last year’s Black Friday shopping. (Richard A. Lipski/For The Washington Post)

Tony Rohr tried to give his employees the day off for Thanksgiving, but he lost his own job for doing so.

The former general manager of a Pizza Hut in Elkhart, Ind., Rohr said he would defy the corporate directive to stay open for the holiday. His decision was made to support his employees so they could spend the day with their families, he told WSBT-TV. “I said, ‘Why can’t we be the company that stands up and says we care about our employees and they can have the day off?’”

Instead, the man who had spent 10 years working his way up from cook to general manager was reportedly fired. (Several news outlets, including NBC, have reported that Pizza Hut has offered Rohr his job back.)

Sure, plenty of people do have to work on the holiday: Police officers, fire fighters, medical personnel and, yes, newspaper and television reporters.

Many restaurants are open, but they’re usually upscale establishments offering a fine dining experience. Not the local pizza joint.

Rohr has the right idea wanting to let people stay home on this day intended for expressing gratitude.

More and more folks are finding Thanksgiving becoming just another work day, especially those in retail as Black Friday has morphed into Black Thursday and deals start as early as Thursday morning.

Why should sales clerks, at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, be forced to spend a day stocking shelves and ringing up purchases for people who want to join in the frantic frenzy of seeking bargains on the latest must-have items?

Are we as a nation so addicted to shopping — or consumerism — that we cannot stand to stay home for one day? Are we so desperate to buy the latest toy or the newest gadget — at a rock-bottom price — even if the true cost means losing out on a day spent with family and friends?

Pope Francis had strong words for the world this week when he called “unfettered capitalism” the new tyranny.  “The culture of prosperity deadens us,” he said in his apostolic exhortation. “We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

I don’t know how to solve the consumerism that infects this country (and it’s not all bad — it does drive the economy), but I’d like to save Thanksgiving as a holiday, and I have a radical idea:

Move it to the third, or even second, Thursday of the month. Let’s put more time between roasting the big bird and opening the gifts under the tree or lighting the Menorah.

Changing the date would extend the shopping season for the holidays, but with more time, perhaps people would not feel pressured to start buying before the dinner dishes are done. Maybe stores could wait — as they used to — until after Thanksgiving to put out the Christmas displays and decorations that now appear before the last Halloween candy has disappeared from the shelves.

There are other reasons as well. There would be more time between two major holidays, both of which often involve travel. College students, like my daughter,  have come home only to leave Sunday for just one more week of classes, followed by finals.

An earlier Thanksgiving might eliminate some problems. Because of winter storms, at least 250 flights were cancelled Wednesday, with thousands experiencing delays. It’s not just in the northeast, either. The rest of the country is experiencing wacky weather to mess up travelers, whether they’re going by plane, train or automobile.

So when, exactly, did the Pilgrims and the Native Americans get together for the first Thanksgiving? One source sets the date for the three-day feast giving thanks for the bountiful harvest of 1621 somewhere between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11.

It had to be earlier than our fourth Thursday, otherwise, they might have celebrated in the snow.

Perhaps the blame for the late-November date lies with George Washington or the first Congress. Their actions led to Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789 being named as a day of public Thanksgiving. No regular day was established until Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation 150 years ago that set the date as the last Thursday of November.

He’d been lobbied by Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and the editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, who campaigned for years to have Thanksgiving become an annual holiday.

In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to move the holiday a week earlier when it fell on the 30th, hoping that the longer shopping season would help the country’s economic recovery out of the Great Depression.

Instead, it created mass confusion with two Thanksgivings, depending on what you state you lived in and for whom you worked, as 32 states agreed with FDR and 16 kept the holiday on the last Thursday.

To settle the dispute, Congress passed a resolution in 1941 establishing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November.

I don’t suppose they could ever agree to move the date again, even if it meant restoring Thanksgiving as it was originally intended: A day to give thanks for our blessings, not a day to score bargains.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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