Franksgiving: A tale of two Thanksgivings

The year 1939 is filled with notable dates in history.

World War II was declared in Europe on Sept. 3, 1939. Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians recorded “Auld Lang Syne” for the first time on March 7, 1939. Lou Gehrig retired from the Yankees on June 21, 1939. Considered Hollywood’s greatest year, films like “Gone with the Wind” and “Wizard of Oz” were released.

And there were two Thanksgivings that November.

On Aug. 15, 1939, newspapers announced that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was going to move Thanksgiving up a week to the third week of November, rather than the fourth. In 1939, that made Thanksgiving Day Nov. 23 rather than Nov. 30.

The move was to help boost holiday sales after the president received complaints that the last Thursday in November was too late for Thanksgiving. The date was too close to Christmas and cut down on Christmas shopping, according to an Aug. 15, 1939, Associated Press (AP) article, “Thanksgiving Moved Up A Week.”

President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt at Thanksgiving dinner in 1939 in Warm Springs, GA.

The change met some praise but mostly criticism.

Not only did the change affect when families gathered for a large meal, it also threw a wrench into calendars like academic schedules and the football industry.

“The precedent-shattering change … promised to upset the nation’s multi-million dollar Turkey day football industry,” according to the AP article. “Some of the season’s biggest and oldest grid games are scheduled for Nov. 30, which the schedule makers thought would be Thanksgiving Day. Moving the games back to Dec. 2 or up to Nov. 23 will be impossible in some cases.”

The change also met criticism from a historical standpoint. James Frasier disapproved, who was chairman of the selectmen of Plymouth, Mass., where the first Thanksgiving took place.

Boards of education around the country were confused about when they would schedule their Thanksgiving vacation for students.

A map of the United States and who celebrated when.

In “man on the street” interviews in the AP article, various everyday people expressed either ambivalence or disagreed with the change because of tradition or “Somebody’s going to think they should have two Thanksgiving dinners.”

When the holiday rolled around, half of the country celebrated it on Nov. 23, the other half Nov. 30, and three states celebrated both dates.

In short, moving Thanksgiving – which gained the nickname “Franksgiving” – was a mess.

References even crept up in pop culture. Some of these include:

  • On Nov. 19, 1939, Jack Benny’s NBC radio program focused on Thanksgiving with the title Jack Discovers He has Purchased an Ostrich for Thanksgiving. During the episode, his wife Mary Livingstone reads a poem called “Thanksgiving, You’re a little mixed up, aren’t you kid?” about the two Thanksgivings.
  • In the Broadway show Walk with Music, the song “Way Back in 1939 A.D” written by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael references the holiday fiasco in its year recap:

One Orson Welles

Two Thanksgiving

And ‘Three Little Fishies’

While the Broadway show only lasted 55 performances in July 1940, Kay Kyser’s band with singers Ginny Simms and Harry Babbitt also recorded the song.

From the cartoon “Holiday Highlights” (1940)

  • The 1940 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon short Holiday Highlights includes gags about every holiday. For Thanksgiving, it shows a calendar with the holiday falling on two different November dates – one for democrats and one for republicans. The cartoon was directed by Tex Avery.
  • The Three Stooges’ 50th short film, No Census, No Feeling (1940) referenced the holiday. In October, Curly thinks it’s Independence Day saying, “You never can tell. Look what they did to Thanksgiving.”
  • On the Nov. 24, 1941, Lux Radio Theatre performance of Maisie Was a Lady, Cecil B. DeMille ends the show noting, “Some of our audience has already celebrated the great festival of Thanksgiving, others will observe it this coming Thursday. The day matters less than the spirit …”

From “Holiday Inn” (1942)

  • Every holiday is represented in the Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire musical, Holiday Inn (1942). For Thanksgiving, an animated turkey (created by Robert Allen and Preston Blair) runs back and forth between the third and fourth week of November until it finally turns to the camera and shrugs.

It was 1942 until all was back to normal. In May 1941, President Roosevelt announced that Thanksgiving would move back to the last Thursday in November beginning in 1942, according to a May 20, 1941 news brief “Thanksgiving in 1942 to be in old style.” Surveys showed that moving the holiday did not result in a significant sales increase. Thanksgiving 1941 was celebrated the last Thursday in November under presidential proclamation.

The switch sure was a turkey.

As an aside, Thanksgiving 1939 was the first time the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was televised. It was shown in New York City as an experimental Broadcast on NBC’s W2XBS. The parade wouldn’t be broadcast again until 1945, and NBC has been the official broadcaster since 1952.

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