Recalling 3 years of confusion with 2 Thanksgiving days

Published 1:13 am Thursday, November 27, 2008

There was a three-year period of time in the early days of World War II when the people of Freeborn County and the rest of the nation were given the confusing choice of celebrating Thanksgiving on two different Thursdays within the same month and year.

Unlike Christmas, the Fourth of July and New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving has never been based on a specific date on the calendar. This particular observance is based instead on tradition and by presidential proclamation.

Thanksgiving is said to have started with the Pilgrims and Indians near Plymouth Rock, but the special day didn’t really become official until 1863 when President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as the time for the national observance.

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However, there was always some controversy through the years whenever there happened to be a fifth Thursday on the calendar for November. This delayed Thanksgiving for a full week and supposedly cut into the Christmas shopping season.

In 1939, Thanksgiving was clearly marked on the calendars for Nov. 30, the fifth and last Thursday of the month. The National Retail Dry Goods Association told President Franklin D. Roosevelt the economy would benefit from an added week of Christmas sales if the holiday could be observed on Nov. 23 instead. The President agreed and signed a proclamation late in the summer changing the holiday date.

What resulted was national chaos. Two states, Texas and Colorado, celebrated Thanksgiving twice in 1939, 23 states observed the holiday on Nov. 23, and 23 more stayed with Nov. 30 as the proper day. (There were only 48 states in the nation back then.)

The change in dates caused confusion with high school and college football teams and their traditional Thanksgiving games. In some states government employees had one Thursday as a holiday, and the rest of the citizens celebrated Thanksgiving on the following Thursday.

Mayor George Leach of Minneapolis had his own solution to the Thanksgiving observance problem. He proclaimed Thanksgiving would start at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 23, and end at 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 30.

And which of these Thursdays was observed as Thanksgiving here in Albert Lea?

According to the files of the Tribune, the newspaper was published on the fourth Thursday, Nov. 23. On the front page an Associated Press article said half the nation would be setting down for the “first table” of the dual Thanksgiving. Freeborn County became a part of the “second table” on Nov. 30 and the Tribune skipped a day in its publishing schedule. As a prelude to the fifth Thursday observance, the Nov. 29 issue featured a long list of area family dinners and holiday gatherings.

In 1940, President Roosevelt signed a proclamation declaring the third Thursday of November as the date for Thanksgiving. This just continued the partisan bickering and again split the national observance between two different dates.

Albert Lea celebrated Thanksgiving in 1940 on Nov. 21, the third Thursday of the month, and just a few weeks after Roosevelt was elected to a third term as president. In the Nov. 20 issue, the election results showed Roosevelt garnered 6,942 votes in Freeborn County. His Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, received 6,683 votes.

However, the really big news in Minnesota during November of 1940 didn’t really concern the election or the two Thanksgivings. The entire state was trying to recover from the disastrous Armistice Day Blizzard of Nov. 11.

On May 20, 1941, President Roosevelt said the act of advancing Thanksgiving a week on the calendar hadn’t increased retail sales appreciably. He said the holiday would be observed on the third Thursday in 1941 because football schedules and calendars had already been prepared. The traditional date, he promised, would be restored in 1942.

On Nov. 19, 1941, a Tribune editorial said, ‘Tomorrow the people of Minnesota and some of the other states will give thanks for many things.” The next day became the second and last time Freeborn County celebrated Thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November.

President Roosevelt kept his word about Thanksgiving. He signed a bill on Nov. 26, 1941, establishing the fourth Thursday of November as the national Thanksgiving. The nation’s three-year experiment with dual dates for Thanksgiving ended in 1942 when all Americans united to celebrate the national holiday, usually featuring turkey as the main entree, on the same Thursday in November.