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Mon, Nov 24, 2014

DR. KESTNER: Surprising history of Thanksgiving tradition

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Last week, this column noted that President Abraham Lincoln had issued a presidential proclamation declaring a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the “last” Thursday in November.

Today, we celebrate Thanksgiving on the “fourth” Thursday in November. This change from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday may seem like a subtle change, but the process involved several political battles and billions of dollars.

You will notice that in most years, the fourth Thursday in November is the last Thursday. Only in years that November has five Thursdays will there be a different outcome from this single word change.

At first it might seem strange that such a small change could cause such political drama and involve such large sums of money. But then again, we must remember that politicians were involved, and that always seems to require excessive debate, posturing and money.

Going back as far as President George Washington, presidents have made declarations that the nation should pause to offer thanksgiving to the Almighty. Even before there was a United States, the American colonies had long observed the tradition of observing a day of thanksgiving in November, dating as far back as 1621 in Plymouth.

However, until Lincoln’s proclamation, there had not been a particular date set that would be carried forth to future years. Until then, many states had annual days of Thanksgiving declared by their governors, but the dates were varied. Lincoln’s proclamation established a set date to unify the nation.

The change from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday came during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s term. In 1939, during the Great Depression, November had five Thursdays. FDR decided that the merchants would benefit from an earlier start of the holiday shopping season to stimulate the economy, so he declared Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday, rather than the fifth.

At the time, it was considered inappropriate for merchants to advertise Christmas sales before Thanksgiving.  Fred Lazarus, owner of the store that would become Macy’s, is credited for making the suggestion to FDR to move the date up one week.

Many Republicans objected to the change, saying it was an affront to the tradition of Thanksgiving established by Lincoln. In some circles the new date became known as “Franksgiving.”

Since the declaration was not legally binding, there was wide disagreement about when to observe Thanksgiving.  About half the states went along with the new date, while the other half stayed with the old date. The political wrangling in Texas resulted in both dates being set aside as

government holidays.

In subsequent years, 1940 and 1941, November had the usual four Thursdays, so Roosevelt declared the third Thursday as Thanksgiving. This had a similar outcome, a lot of political dust-up and about half the states observing his declaration and half not.

It took both houses of Congress to work out a bill late in 1941 to set aside the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving.  

There were still some states that objected, notably Texas, which observed the last Thursday of November until 1956.  

How many billions of dollars were in play as a result of merchants being able to start Christmas season one week earlier in some years is unknown.  

Today of course, Thanksgiving is celebrated as perhaps the greatest holiday in America. It is marked by traditions including feasting, family, fellowship, football, Friday morning bargain hunting and the Macy’s Day Parade.

Like many families, at our house Thanksgiving always involves inviting friends to join us and become family-for-a-day.  It is a great opportunity to celebrate family traditions and appreciate the gift of friendship.

Let us not fail to acknowledge the original intent of the great holiday by giving humble thanks to our Creator for all of the blessings that we enjoy each day. Even as we face the challenges of difficult circumstances, there is always reason for thanksgiving.

Thank you for making The Murfreesboro Post and this column a part of your reading entertainment.

To see previous articles and healthful tips year-round, click on DrKestner.com

I hope you and your family enjoy a wonderful

Thanksgiving Day.  

Next week: Learn to create more joy in your life!
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Dr. Kestner
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Holiday, Mark Kestner, Thanksgiving, Voices
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