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Once upon a time, America had 2 Thanksgivings. It did not go well

By John Wilkens, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

SAN DIEGO — Think America is divided now? Eighty years ago, the country couldn't even agree on when to hold Thanksgiving.

The controversy in 1939 split the nation in half, with some states following decades-old tradition and sitting down for turkey on the last Thursday in November, while the others heeded a directive by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and moved the holiday up a week.

In hindsight, the furor may seem overblown — in San Diego, the Union newspaper editorialized against it three times — and its details quaintly humorous. The governor of Maine was so upset he refused to eat turkey at a public event and opened a can of sardines instead.

But then, like now, what people said and did revealed deeper political and cultural fissures about the country's leadership and its future.

"What John Smith USA thinks about President Roosevelt's plan to change Thanksgiving Day pretty much depends on what John Smith thinks of President Roosevelt," pollster George Gallup wrote in an introduction to a nationwide survey that showed Democrats (the president's party) slightly in favor of the move and Republicans heavily opposed.

In 1939, with the nation still pulling itself out of the Great Depression, the argument wasn't really about which day was best for serving up pumpkin pie, just as today's polarized partisans aren't really squabbling over whether to wear coronavirus face masks.


They're mostly concerned about where they believe America is headed. A lot of hopes and fears get wrapped up in that.

It may be instructive as well to know that federal leaders worked out the Thanksgiving Day problem, which is why it's now pinned to the fourth Thursday in November, and that Americans eventually found a way to laugh together at what they'd been through.

When the movie "Holiday Inn" was released in 1942, it included an animated sequence of a turkey standing on a November calendar, then walking back and forth as Thanksgiving moves from one Thursday to another, and eventually raising its upturned hands in exhausted confusion.



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