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The Year with Two Thanksgivings

Many people don’t know that in 1939, just as World War II was dividing the countries of the world into Axis versus Allied, another conflict was threatening to divide the United States in two.

It was over the date of Thanksgiving.

In 1863, President Lincoln had declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, and set its date as the last Thursday in November.

But in 1939, President Roosevelt switched the date to the second-to-last Thursday in November. This was at the behest of businessmen who wanted an extra week of Christmas sales. And since the United States was still mired in the Great Depression, it seemed to make sense to FDR to do what he could to help boost profits.

But he hadn’t counted on the backlash.

Thanksgiving was a cherished American holiday that brought families together across the country. And many people, outraged by the change to the traditional date, rebelled against the new schedule. Some places, such as Connecticut, accepted the new date and started planning their turkey dinners for November 23. Others, like New York, dug in their heels and stuck to November 30.

Family and friends who lived across state lines were split, as neighboring states chose different official Thanksgiving dates, making it impossible for people to celebrate together.

Some Americans wrote scathing letters to Roosevelt.

There was one who accused FDR of violating “idealism and sentiment.” Robert S. Benson of Groton, South Dakota, wrote:

After all we want to make this country better for our posterity, and you must remember we are not running a Russia or communistic government.”

Another concerned citizen, Mr. Shelby O. Bennett of Shinnston, West Virginia, wrote:

Mr. President:

I see by the paper this morning where you want to change Thanksgiving Day to November 23 of which I heartily approve. Thanks.

Now, there are some things that I would like done and would appreciate your approval:

  1. Have Sunday changed to Wednesday;
  2. Have Monday’s to be Christmas;
  3. Have it strictly against the Will of God to work on Tuesday;
  4. Have Thursday to be Pay Day with time and one-half for overtime;
  5. Require everyone to take Friday and Saturday off for a fishing trip down the Potomac.

Under the unrelenting pressure, Congress took charge, and in 1941 passed a law setting a new official method of determining Thanksgiving. Like Solomon, they split it down the middle – neither the last Thursday of November nor the second-to-last. Instead, they picked the fourth Thursday of November. 

And thus it has been ever since, uniting the country anew.

In 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale – the same woman who wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – came up with the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day. The holiday had already existed on a state-by-state basis, but Hale advocated for making it an “American custom and institution.”

Hale wrote letters to five presidents – Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, and Lincoln – before Lincoln finally came around and threw his support behind a national holiday. 

According to Wikipedia, “the new national holiday was considered a unifying day after the stress of the Civil War.”

America isn’t the only country to celebrate Thanksgiving – since the 1940s Brazil has had Dia de Ação de Graças, taking place on the same day as the United States’ holiday, because President Gaspar Dutra decided he liked the idea.

Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October. Liberia’s Thanksgiving Day falls on the first Thursday of November, commemorating the country’s founding in 1822 by freed American slaves.

And autumn harvest festivals are probably as old as agriculture itself – times when people celebrated the end of a season of hard work and expressed their joy over having enough food to last through the winter.

But there really is something very American about Thanksgiving. I think it reflects our mixed feelings about giving and receiving. We’re an individualistic people; we prize self-reliance and hard work. There’s a tendency to feel that if we’ve achieved something, it’s largely ourselves that we have to thank.

So I think as Americans we can struggle a little to appreciate the value of gratitude, and maybe sometimes need a reminder to notice the ways our lives intertwine with, and are made better by, others.

After all, gratitude has a raft of real benefits, which science has been validating in recent years – from boosting social capital and improving decision-making to increasing self-esteem and reducing stress. It even helps you sleep better.

According to one study, just having a daily five-minute practice of writing in a gratitude journal improves long-term wellbeing by 10%. That’s roughly the same impact as doubling your income.

Thomas Brown, the Scottish philosopher, called gratitude “the delightful emotion of love to him who has conferred a kindness on us, the very feeling of which is itself no small part of the benefit conferred.”

In other words, if you don’t allow yourself to feel that warm sense of gratitude for something you’ve received, you’re missing out on a great pleasure – a pleasure that’s a gift in itself.

But psychologist Adam Grant takes it a step further. 

Don’t just give thanks in your head, or in your journal, Grant advises.

Actually say thank you.

Expressing thanks doesn’t have to be a completely unselfish act, Grant points out. For one thing, thanking people makes them twice as likely to help you again in the future.

And when you give thanks, as in actually saying thank you to someone, you become a giver yourself. This action helps you feel good about yourself, helps them feel good about what they’ve done, and solidifies the relationship. All without costing a thing.

One of the greatest acts of giving that you can undertake is to make the other givers in your life feel appreciated,” Grant says.

After all, it’s Thanks-giving, not Thanks-thinking.

Or you could be like Mr. F. P. Archer Sr. of Miami, Florida, another letter-writer to President Roosevelt. Archer said, as far as he was concerned, every day is Thanksgiving.

Not a bad idea.

But I’ll still be making cranberry sauce on November 24th this year. 

Same as my mom in Minnesota and my brothers in New Hampshire and Florida – thanks to FDR.

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