George Will

Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November.
All the rest have thirty-one,
Until we hear from Washington.

WASHINGTON -- The country heard from Washington -- the man, not the place -- when he issued a National Thanksgiving Proclamation for Nov. 26, 1789. The new nation had much for which to be thankful, including the fact that it would be 150 years before Thanksgiving was officially made into a handmaiden of commerce and turned into the starting gun for the sprint of Christmas shopping.

By now the sprint is a marathon that seems to begin around Labor Day. Soon there will be after-Christmas sales before Halloween, such is the relentless expansion of what is called, with telling vagueness, ``the holiday season.''

The country heard from Washington -- the place; the mentality -- in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt threw Thanksgiving into the battle to get happy days here again. FDR's governmental hyperkinesia had failed to banish the Depression. Unemployment was still 17.2 percent and the ultimate cure for the Depression -- Admiral Yamamoto's fleet approaching Hawaii -- was still 24 months over the horizon.

Even the calendar was conspiring against prosperity because in 1939, as in FDR's first year in office, 1933, November had five Thursdays, and Thanksgiving was to fall on the 30th. So FDR moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the fourth.

Although President Washington was a Virginian, the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day had seemed somehow New Englandish, tainted by Yankee sanctimony and, worse still, Federalist notions of national supremacy over states' prerogatives. Even President John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts thought a national Thanksgiving observation might be ``introducing New England manners'' where they were unwelcome.

President Lincoln, a great affirmer of the national facets of the nation's life, was the first to set the last Thursday in November as the national day of Thanksgiving. Bill Kauffman, who has explained all this (in ``New Deal Turkey,'' The American Enterprise magazine, December 2000), says Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson, who had quite enough fights on his hands without picking another one -- he was the first president impeached -- shoved Thanksgiving into December. President U.S. Grant, who rarely retreated but knew how to, put it back to the last Thursday in November.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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