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Jane Ahlin, Published November 19 2011

Ahlin: Modern Thanksgiving date a partisan turkey early on

Ah, Thanksgiving, that perfect national holiday on which we all agree.

Forget political partisanship, forget the great divide between tea party folks and those camping out with Occupy Wall Street; forget gun control, gay marriage, abortion, racism, the widening income gap between rich and poor and who should be taxed more or less; forget health care reform. In fact, push out of mind everything divisive in society. Concentrate instead on the one holiday we’ve always agreed upon from the day the Pilgrims, Squanto, and his Wamponoag friends got together – that simple day to be grateful: Thanksgiving.

Whoops. Even if we ignore the arguments about thanksgiving first being a Spanish thing in Texas in the 1500s or that settlers in Virginia were thankful long before the Pilgrims landed or the reasons all the thanksgiving declarations by presidents from George Washington to James Buchanan didn’t result in a national holiday (only Abraham Lincoln managed that during the Civil War), there was a huge brouhaha over Thanksgiving that happened much later. Flash forward from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During the presidency of FDR, political partisanship over the placement of Thanksgiving on the calendar was as ridiculous as anything we’ve got going today.

In an article carried by Reuters last year, writer James Ledbetter told of the decision by FDR to change the date of Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday in the month (often the same date). Evidently, FDR was lobbied by Fred Lazarus, Jr., owner of Federated Department Stores, who wanted a longer Christmas sales season. Lazarus wasn’t alone. In 1939 the National Dry Goods Association asked Roosevelt to change the date to increase the number of days people would have for Christmas shopping. As quaint as it seems to us, back then society didn’t approve of Christmas advertising before Thanksgiving.

FDR thought that made perfect sense; however, he intended to get the opinions of state governors before moving forward. Unfortunately, before contacting them, he took a summer fishing trip to Canada. Speaking seemingly off the cuff to the few reporters on the trip he said, “The stores and people who work, retail people, etc., are very anxious to have (Thanksgiving) set forward.” When asked, he said he planned to make the change, “This year, yes.”

Unfortunately, changing the date mid-year caused many problems. With their schedules already set, turkey growers, orange growers, and food distributors insisted moving Thanksgiving forward would wreak havoc. Also, 1939 calendars had the wrong date, as did those 1940 calendars already printed. Then, too, all the high schools and colleges that had football games scheduled for the “old” Thanksgiving Day had to scramble to make changes. As Ledbetter quoted the coach from Ouachita College in Arkansas saying, “We will vote the Republican ticket if (FDR) interferes with our football.”

The most ridiculous reactions came from politicians. Republican politicians particularly questioned whether changing the date undermined the legacy of the Republican president Abraham Lincoln. Calling the new date “Franksgiving,” 21 states with Republican governors refused to change it. Twenty-six states (most with Democratic governors) went along with Roosevelt. Texas – being Texas – celebrated both Thanksgivings. It wasn’t until 1941, after the trauma of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WW II, that the change to the fourth Thursday of November lost its political charge. Even then, a few states held out until the Korean War, and Texas didn’t change until 1956.

There is one lesson in that silly battle for us today, notably for retailers who have decided to start Black Friday late on this 2011 Thanksgiving Day. Retail sales did not increase on years with the extra week of shopping – not a bit. For all the fuss and bother, the change turned out to be a turkey.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com