Football, Thanksgiving, and the Great Depression

The Masters Saturday, the Fourth of July, and the Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends are some of the busiest golf days of the year. That said, here’s a little history on Thanksgiving, Football, and the Great Depression to share with your partners on the course this holiday season. 

In 1939, President Roosevelt decided to move Thanksgiving Day earlier by a week. Rather than have it fall on its traditional date, the last Thursday of November, he declared that it would be observed one week earlier. Why did he make such a seemingly random decision during the Great Depression? Because he hoped that by moving Thanksgiving earlier it would stimulate the struggling economy by extending the holiday shopping season by one week. 

According to a reporter: There were five Thursdays in November that year, which meant that Thanksgiving would fall on the 30th. That left just 20 shopping days until Christmas. By moving the holiday up to Nov. 23, 1939, Roosevelt hoped to give the economy a lift by allowing shoppers more time to make holiday purchases.

In a news conference, Roosevelt shared a tutorial on the history of the holiday. Thanksgiving was not a national holiday, he said, meaning that it was not set by federal law. According to custom, it was up to the president, he claimed, to pick the date every year. It wasn’t until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday in November that the date became accepted. To drive his point home, Roosevelt said that there was “nothing sacred” about the date.

Just as he had done with his controversial “Court Packing” plan of 1937, Roosevelt badly misjudged public opinion. Outraged protests began in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the site of the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621, but quickly spread to other circles, including college football!

PRESIDENT SHOCKS FOOTBALL COACHES: Many Games are Upset by Thanksgiving Plan, read a banner headline. And in the then-staunchly Democratic state of Arkansas, a football coach threatened: ‘We’ll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football!’” Some coaches, of course, were more diplomatic when it came to questioning the president. 

According to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum: Some governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place because families that lived in states such as New York did not have the same day off as family members in states such as Connecticut! And so family and friends were unable to celebrate the holiday together.  

By 1941, most retailers also disapproved of Roosevelt’s plan, and even the federal government agreed that the change had not resulted in any boost in holiday sales. And so, on Dec. 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed a resolution making Thanksgiving a national holiday and mandating that it be observed on the fourth Thursday in November of each year.

Happy holidays and enjoy your walk!

Suzy Evans, J.D., Ph.D.

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