Thanksgiving has always been a bad day for the turkeys. But there were three years when it was also a bad day for Americans. The best that you could say for the great Thanksgiving quarrel was that it offered a distraction from the Depression and, abroad, the spreading war.

In the summer of 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on advice from several business groups, decided to change the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the next-to-last Thursday, the 23rd. In 1939, the traditional Thanksgiving Day--proclaimed by almost every president since Lincoln inaugurated the practice in 1863--fell on Nov. 30. This meant that the Christmas buying time was reduced to a mere three weeks, and retailers urged the president to remedy the situation by instituting an early Thanksgiving. FDR, whose relations with business were cool in almost any season, decided to oblige.

The result was a barrage of criticism. The chairman of the selectmen of the town of Plymouth, Mass., "heartily disapproved." He noted that "Plymouth and Thanksgiving are almost synonymous and merchants or no merchants I can't see any reason for changing it." Football coaches were irate, since the traditional Thanksgiving Day games had already been scheduled for the fall; college administrators fumbled over catalog notices regarding holidays. And some turkey farmers scratched their heads, concerned that they needed as much time as possible to fatten the birds for the holiday tables. Then there was the remark of Sen. Styles Bridges (R-N.H.): "I wish Mr. Roosevelt would abolish winter."

Although on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland and the European world began to crumble, many Americans took potshots at the president's tinkering with tradition. Some states declined to conform. Others, like Oklahoma and Texas, celebrated both dates in an attempt to please both supporters and critics. Herbert Hoover defied presidential decree and ate his turkey on Nov. 30.

In spite of the public criticism and economic data indicating that retail sales had not been spurred by the 1939 deviation, FDR stuck to his guns, again proclaiming the earlier date in 1940. But it was a long, cold autumn for the president. Wendell Willkie, his Republican opponent, time and again attacked the soft underbelly of the turkey brouhaha, and many Americans cried foul.

To be sure, FDR prevailed over Willkie and his critics, but the battle took its toll: Willkie, for example, lost by only 5 million votes as compared with Alf Landon's defeat by 11 million in 1936, and only two-thirds of the states celebrated what was being dubbed the New Deal Thanksgiving.

As the European war raged in 1941, the squabble over Thanksgiving continued in America. One congressma tried to make peace through compromise: make the fourth Monday in November the date of Thanksgiving. But the traditionalists held firm: the last Thursday in November or no deal. The president tried to regroup his forces, but the merchants became chicken-hearted. To save face, he proclaimed the early date for 1941, for the third and final time, and indicated a return to the traditional celebration in 1942.

As Pearl Harbor brought the nation into World War II, the spirit of disunity declined and a modicum of compromise on the Thanksgiving issue became apparent. Congress passed a bill designating the fourth Thursday (not the last, as the traditionalists had demanded) the national Thanksgiving. The president signed the bill without fanfare the day after Christmas.

What's the moral of all this? Don't tamper with tradition unless you're prepared to deal with ruffled feathers.

And don't try to make a buck from a divided nation, the lesson learned by the National Sausage Casing Dealers Association in 1939. Creating a turkeyfurter for the American who could not afford to celebrate both the traditional and New Deal Thanksgivings, the association had no luck marketing its product (smothered in cranberry sauce) at late-November football games.