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.

But Appomattox not withstanding, states remained free to do as they liked about Thanksgiving, and Southern states liked to observe it when they chose. Or not at all, as in Texas during the governorship of Oran Milo Roberts, who said, ``It's a damned Yankee institution anyway.''

But in 1939 many of the nation's larger merchants -- the National Retail Dry Goods Association, the presidents of Gimbel Brothers and Lord & Taylor -- asked FDR for relief from the fact that in 1939 Thanksgiving would arrive so late -- Nov. 30 -- that it would injure the economy by delaying the start of Christmas shopping.

However, the class struggle erupted, pitting smaller merchants against the larger merchants. The proprietor of Arnold's Men's Shop in Brooklyn wrote to urge FDR to allow the later Thanksgiving: ``If the large department stores are overcrowded during the shorter shopping period before Christmas, the overflow will come, naturally, to the neighborhood store. ... We have waited many years for a late Thanksgiving to give us an advantage over the large stores.''

FDR felt the pain of the large merchants. But some people felt pained by FDR's tampering with Thanksgiving, including Oregon's attorney general, author of the doggerel printed above. A West Virginian wrote FDR to say, while you are at it, please declare it ``strictly against the Will of God to work on Tuesday'' and ``have Sunday changed to Wednesday." A South Dakota real estate man admonished FDR to ``remember we are not running a Russia or communistic government," and he added: ``Between your ideas of running for a third term, and your changing dates of century-old holidays, we believe you have practically lost your popularity and the good will of the people of the Northwest." FDR lost South Dakota in 1940.

But in 1939, 23 states followed FDR's lead and celebrated Thanksgiving on Nov. 23. Twenty-three stayed with Nov. 30. Colorado and Texas celebrated on both days, Texas doing so to avoid having to reschedule -- speaking of things to give thanks for -- the Texas-Texas A&M football game.

FDR, who enjoyed fidgeting with things, promised in 1941 to return Thanksgiving to the last Thursday in November. But history has its hold on us and Congress shoved it back to the fourth Thursday, partly because many constituents believed the pilgrims had put it there in the first place.


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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