by Brenée Goforth
Communications Associate, John Locke Foundation
This week, JLF’s Jon Sanders published a research brief on the unintended consequences of changing the date of Thanksgiving in 1939. Sanders writes:
As strange as this sounds to 21st-century ears, back then the Christmas shopping season didn’t start till after Thanksgiving…Since the calendar date of Thanksgiving changed while that of Christmas was always December 25th, the length of the Christmas shopping season fluctuated. The shortest shopping season would be when the last Thursday of November was also the last day of November (the 30th). Such was the case in 1939.
In August of that year, retail merchant lobbies captured the ear of Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins about their plight. A shorter shopping season would mean fewer sales, and we’re still in a depression. A longer season would increase sales, employment, and purchasing power nationwide.
Hopkins brought their concerns to the president. Shortly afterward, FRD proclaimed that Thanksgiving that year would fall on November 23rd, not the expected November 30th.
However, this change affected more than just the retail merchants. It had a spiral effect throughout the nation, Sanders explains:
Calendar makers were unhappy and suddenly seeing their calendar print runs for the next year thrown into doubt. Football schedules were disrupted, as was all the expected economic activity surrounding the traditional Thanksgiving football games around the country.
This led many policymakers to either accept or reject the holiday, leading to two different Thanksgivings that year:
Politics in every state was upended. Imagine being an elected official beset with the usual partisan squabbles suddenly having to deal with whether to “stand with the president” on which Thursday is the right one to gather together with family and friends in humble gratitude for God’s blessings.
…States wound up splitting almost evenly in determining which Thanksgiving to mark: 23 opted for Nov. 30th (including North Carolina), 22 for Nov. 23rd, and three opted for both. This mess meant that holiday travel plans were disrupted for people coming from out-of-state to celebrate with their family, if the states marked separate dates.
Many merchants themselves did not like the change:
Sanders references an article from the Wall Street Journal in 2009 to further this point:
Only 37% of stores surveyed favored the early date. In Washington, the federal government reported that the early Thanksgiving resulted in no boost to retail sales.
Thankfully, FDR gave up the cause and officially declared Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November via signing onto a joint resolution of from Congress on Dec. 26, 1941.