On August 14, 1939, while vacationing at his boyhood summer home on Campobello Island, off the coast of New Brunswick, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called an informal news conference. The president dropped a bombshell: He announced that he had decided to move Thanksgiving Day forward by a week. Rather than take place on its traditional date, the last Thursday of November, the annual holiday would instead be celebrated a week earlier.
The country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and the president’s stated reason was economic. There were five Thursdays in November that year, which meant that Thanksgiving Day, if celebrated on the last Thursday, would fall on the 30th of the month. That left just twenty shopping days till Christmas. Moving the holiday up to November 23 would allow shoppers more time to make their purchases and—so the president’s dubious theory went—spend more money, thus giving the economy a lift. Most Americans would have been happy to comply with the president’s encouragement to spend more, if they had had the money. But they didn’t, and the early Thanksgiving was just another example of the New Deal’s ill-considered campaign to bring the country out of the Depression by persuading people to spend their way to prosperity.
At the Campobello Island press conference, Roosevelt said that businessmen had been pressing him to move Thanksgiving forward ever since he took office in 1933. The change in date would be permanent, he added. The president then offered a little tutorial on the history of the holiday. Thanksgiving was not a national holiday, he explained, meaning that it was not set by federal law. According to custom, it was up to the president to select the date every year.
It wasn’t until 1863, when President Lincoln directed that Thanksgiving be celebrated on the last Thursday in November, that this date became generally accepted nationwide, Roosevelt explained. To make sure that reporters got his point, he added that there was nothing sacred about the date. The president then decamped for a sail in the Bay of Fundy on the cruiser Tuscaloosa, where he hosted a tea for a contingent of his neighbors at Campobello.
Nothing sacred? Roosevelt might as well have commanded that roast beef henceforth replace turkey as the star of the holiday meal, or that cranberries be barred from the Thanksgiving table. The president badly misread public opinion. His announcement was front-page news the next day, and the public outcry was swift and vociferous.