CHRISTMAS COMES but once a year. For a while, however, Thanksgiving came twice, and though there was a Depression on and a world war looming, Americans managed to devote quite a lot of time and energy to an angry dispute over when our day of thanks and unity should be observed. The uproar began in 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, known as “that man” to his detractors, issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation for Nov. 23 instead of Nov. 30, which, in that year, happened to be the last Thursday of the month, the day set aside for Thanksgiving ever since the Civil War. The president was responding to pleas from many of the country’s merchants, who opposed a late Thanksgiving because it shortened the Christmas shopping season.
The change seemed simple and benign, but it triggered waves of indignation (and some support) as well as intense lobbying, and the letters came rolling in to the White House. From the Downtown Association of Los Angeles: “You will appreciate the importance that an additional week incorporated in this great holiday season will have upon the distribution activities of the entire United States.” From the owner of Arnold’s Men’s Shop in Brooklyn: “The small storekeeper would prefer leaving Thanksgiving Day where it belongs. If the large department stores are over-crowded during the shorter shopping period before Christmas, the overflow will come, naturally, to the neighborhood store. Before writing, [I] have consulted with my fellow directors of the Flatbush Chamber of Commerce.” From a manufacturer of calendars and gift cards: “I am afraid your change for Thanksgiving is going to cause the calendar manufacturers untold grief. If very many customers demand 1940 calendars to correspond with your proclamation, hundreds of thousands of dollars will be lost by the calendar companies, and in many instances it will result in bankruptcy.”