Why We Don’t Say “Happy Franksgiving”

alex atkins bookshelf wordsNo — that’s not a typo. If you lived in the United States during the Great Depression, people wished one another “Happy Franksgiving.” The word Franksgiving was coined by Charles White, mayor of Atlantic City, as a portmanteau (a term that linguists use to describe what is essentially a mash-up of words; the word portmanteau, as it refers to words, was introduced by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There published in 1871) of Franklin and Thanksgiving, meant to ridicule President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s well-intentioned but highly criticized decision to move Thanksgiving one week earlier than the last Thursday of November of 1939, a tradition introduced by President Abraham Lincoln over seven decades ago in 1863.

Back in the 1930s, the American public actually frowned upon retailers that displayed holiday decorations or merchandise before Thanksgiving (imagine that! What a difference a century makes — now the holiday retail season begins before Halloween — Black Friday seems to happen every week from Halloween to Christmas!), so in August 1939, several leading business leaders, including Lew Hahn (general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association), Fred Lazarus, Jr. (founder of Federated Department Stores, now known as Macy’s), and Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins warned FDR that the late celebration of Thanksgiving (November had five Thursdays in 1939) would adversely impact retail sales that year. Worried that inaction would hurt the economy, FDR decided to declare that Thanksgiving would be moved to November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of that month. Outside of retailers who embraced the date switch and the opportunity to cash in on Christmas sooner, most Americans opposed the switch — 62% to 38% according to a Gallup poll of that time. One constant in American history is political polarization: support for Franksgiving was divided along partisan lines: Democrats favored it 52% to 48% while Republicans opposed it 79% to 21%. So in 1939, it was not unusual for Democrats to celebrate November 23 as “Democratic Thanksgiving” while Republicans celebrated “Republican Thanksgiving” on November 30.

Many Republicans argued that FDR’s decision was disrespecting President Lincoln’s legacy. Republican Presidential candidate Alf Landon went so far as to compare FDR to Hitler: “[Franksgiving is] another illustration of the confusion which [FDR’s] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” Ouch. Landon’s comment also prefigures one of the most famous rules of the internet — Godwin’s Law (introduced in 1990) that states that given enough time in an online discussion on just about any topic, a person will inevitably make some comparison to the Nazis or Hitler.

In short, the date switch that occurred in 1939 and 1940 was an absolute fiasco. The decision was unpopular among the voters and the dramatic increase in holiday retail sales that retailers had predicted never materialized. Another constant in American history is Congress’ glacial speed in addressing a colossal screwup. It took Congress two years to fix this mess — in 1941 Congress finally declared that Thanksgiving would fall on the fourth Thursday of November — where it has remained to this day. 

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For further reading: http://www.realclearhistory.com/articles/2014/11/26/when_fdr_tried_to_move_thanksgiving.html