From the Archives: Thanksgiving with the Presidents

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Did you know that before the 1940s Thanksgiving was not on a fixed date but was whenever the President proclaimed it to be?

George Washington issued the first Presidential proclamation for the holiday in 1789. That year he designated Thursday, November 26 as a national day of “public thanksgiving.” The United States then celebrated its first Thanksgiving under its new Constitution. Seventy-four years later, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday on the last Thursday in November. 

By the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday; it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. Tradition had dictated that the holiday be celebrated on the last Thursday of the month, however, this tradition became increasingly difficult to continue during the challenging times of the Great Depression. 

Roosevelt’s first Thanksgiving in office fell on November 30, the last day of the month, because November had five Thursdays that year. This meant that there were only about 20 shopping days until Christmas and statistics showed that most people waited until after Thanksgiving to begin their holiday shopping. Business leaders feared they would lose the much-needed revenue an extra week of shopping would afford them. They asked President Roosevelt to move the holiday up from the 30th to the 23rd. He chose to keep the Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday of the month, however, as it had been for nearly three-quarters of a century.

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