Date of Thanksgiving jumped around


In 1938, everyone in the United States celebrated the last Thanksgiving day according to the proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln. If this is confusing, it is because Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose date is not set to a specific date.

The first Thanksgiving was held in 1789, when President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26, to be a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” That, however, did not establish Thanksgiving as an official holiday. Some states celebrated it. Some did not.

Sarah Josepha Hale, a 19th-century woman who wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and edited the most popular publication for the 19th-century woman, “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” campaigned for an official Thanksgiving that would be celebrated at the same time throughout the United States, as it existed then.

It took her years and years, but she finally convinced Abraham Lincoln to declare, on October 3, 1863, that the last Thursday in November would be a day of “thanksgiving and praise” in an effort to remind everyone that all citizens of the United States or the short-lived Confederate states owed the same gratitude to the same early settlers.

After the Civil War, the proclamation held and the last Thursday in November was Thanksgiving. That lasted until 1939. The change occurred because the last Thursday in November that year was November 30. Retailers were horrified. This left a mere 24 days - in an era when stores were generally closed on weekends, especially Sundays - before Christmas.

Apparently, no one noticed this the year before because the push to move the date forward a week didn’t occur until the fall of 1939. At the business owners’ request, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that in 1939, Thanksgiving would be the FOURTH Thursday in November, not the LAST Thursday in November, moving Thanksgiving Day back to November 23, 1939.

This upset a lot of people. For one thing, there wasn’t much advance notice. The proclamation was made only a few weeks before the change. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools suddenly had to reschedule to allow children the day off a week earlier than planned.

Some people who were not fond of Franklin Roosevelt referred to the changed date as “Franksgiving.”

Before 1939, the president traditionally made his official announcement, then the governors of each state proclaimed Thanksgiving for their state. In 1939, 23 states went along with the change, 23 states did not, and Colorado and Texas had two official Thanksgivings that year.

In 1940, Roosevelt did it again. He declared the second-to-last Thursday would be Thanksgiving. This time, 31 states went along with the change. 

Ironically, Lincoln declared Thanksgiving in an effort to bring the country together. The late dates of the late 1930s were causing division. As a result, on December 26, 1941, in the midst of the early days of World War II, Congress decided to act and make the change permanent.

Ever since, Thanksgiving has been the fourth Thursday in November, even in years with five Thursdays, and the shopping season has been extended. However, in 2013, the fourth Thursday was the 28th, so the shopping season was cut back anyway. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Amorette Allison is a local historian and a columnist/reporter for the Miles City Star. She is also a former preservation officer for the city. Allison has authored several volumes on local history titled “The Way We Were,” which are available for purchase.