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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Thanksgiving: Politics, The Great Depression, and Retail?

What we learned. Pilgrims fresh off the Mayflower celebrated the harvest with a potluck dinner with their friendly neighbors, the "Indians." As kids, we traced our hands to make turkeys, dressed up for Thanksgiving pageants dressed as Pilgrims and Indians, and sat at the kids table hoping macaroni and cheese was part of the fare while the adults feasted on Turkey, pumpkin pie, and celebrated their bounty by watching gladiators do battle. Ahem, a football game. What really happened. In 1621 the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag did share an autumn harvest meal, one that consisted of deer, cod, eels, shellfish, wild fowl, and native corn made into porridge and cornbread. Mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and my mom's green bean casserole, and likely turkey was not to be found. Nor was it likely the first meal that the Native Americans and Europeans shared. The First Thanksgiving. In 1789, George Washington issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, calling upon Americans to express their gratitude for the end of the war of independence and the ratification of the Constitution. Adams and Madison issued similar proclamations during their presidencies, Jefferson did not. Oh, and there was no reference or connection to the Pilgrims, 1621, or a "first Thanksgiving."

Bringing us together. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a "national day of Thanksgiving and Praise" calling on all to "heal the wounds of the nation" during the Civil War. He declared that Thanksgiving be on the last Thursday of November. Following Lincoln, in 1870, President Ulysses S Grant signed into law the "Holidays Act" which included four holidays...New Years, Christmas, July 4th, and Thanksgiving, the latter to be a yearly "appointed or remembered" federal holiday. It sort of took the place of "Evacuation Day", celebrated on November 25th. It was a celebration of the evacuation of the British. The "Holidays Act" did not extend outside of Washington D.C., nor did it assign a date for Thanksgiving, leaving it to the discretion of the President. So by tradition, it remained as the last Thursday of November...until 1939.

Retail Inspiration. It was generally considered inappropriate for retailers to advertise Christmas goods prior to Thanksgiving, and 1939 was one of those years that had FIVE Thursdays in November. With the encouragement of Fred Lazarus, founder of Federated Department Stores (later Macy's), and with the belief that the extra week of Christmas shopping would give merchants more time to sell goods, encourage more spending, and could help the U.S. out of the Depression, President Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday as Thanksgiving.

Was there controversy? Why of course! Republicans declared the fourth Thursday (November 23rd) as "Franksgiving" or the "Democratic Thanksgiving", and celebrated November 30th as the "Republican Thanksgiving." It was quite contentious, and in 1940 and 1941, since by law, the President still had the power to proclaim the date that Thanksgiving would be celebrated, President Roosevelt declared that the THIRD Thursday of November would be the official holiday. Some states followed, some states opted for the more "traditional" date. That is until 1941 when both houses of Congress passed a joint resolution declaring the last Thursday of the month of November as Thanksgiving. Done. Until later that year, the Senate approved an amendment that it be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November so as to remove confusion. Some states continued to follow the last Thursday of the month during years with five Thursdays. The last hold out? The great state of Texas, which didn't align with the rest of the country until 1956.

Where are we now. At what point our modern day Thanksgiving became connected to 1621, I am not sure. We don't have deer on the menu today. If you think politics are rough today, just think that in between the Great Depression and World War II, a holiday meant to unite a country created a major rift. I am, with intent, not wading into the discussion of Native Americans and colonization. But, it is worth celebrating a day originally proclaimed with the intent of bringing us together. And who knew that the current date for Thanksgiving was heavily inspired by retail! I should have known... Happy Thanksgiving all!


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