For a few years during the late 1930s and early '40s, Americans had the choice of celebrating Thanksgiving on either the third Thursday or the last Thursday of November, but it wasn't a choice that they particularly wanted. Rather, it was the result of a misstep by the Roosevelt administration.
"In 1939, FDR decided to move Thanksgiving Day forward by a week," wrote Melanie Kirkpatrick in the November 24, 2009, edition of the Wall Street Journal. "Rather than take place on its traditional date, the last Thursday of November, he decreed that the annual holiday would instead be celebrated a week earlier."
The last Thursday of November happened to be the 30th in 1939, and Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins had advised the president that the switch to the 23rd would add a week to the Christmas shopping season, presumably boosting sales. The announcement was made in August and it didn't sit well at all, despite FDR's reasoning that Thanksgiving had only been the last Thursday in November since the time of the Lincoln administration, not even 80 years earlier. Moreover, Congress had never designated the day -- successive presidents always had.
"Public sentiment ran heavily against Roosevelt's plan," continued Kirkpatrick "Ten days after the president's announcement, Gallup published the results of a national poll finding that 62 percent of Americans surveyed disapproved of the date change. By the time November arrived, the 48 states were nearly evenly divided. Twenty-three decided to stick with the old Thanksgiving, and 22 decided to adopt FDR's date. Texas, Mississippi and Colorado said they would celebrate on both days.
"It wasn't long before people started referring to Nov. 30 as the "Republican Thanksgiving" and Nov. 23 as the 'Democratic Thanksgiving' or 'Franksgiving.' "
This state of affairs persisted until 1941. By then, the government had reported that most retailers didn't see increased sales from the longer holiday shopping season, and the president acknowledged that the "experiment" with the earlier Thanksgiving hadn't worked. Beginning in 1942, he said, Thanksgiving would revert to the customary last Thursday of November.
Curiously, the fracas had a permanent impact on the date of Thanksgiving in the United States. After FDR relented, Congress took up the matter and in a joint resolution passed by both houses that the president signed on December 26, 1941, the holiday was fixed as the fourth Thursday of November, not the last one. Often these are one in the same, but not every year. This year, for example, they are the same, but in 2013 there will be a fifth Thursday in November, the 29th. It will not be Thanksgiving.
For a few years after 1942, some states clung to the last Thursday, but since the mid-50s, the fourth Thursday has been the universally accepted date for Thanksgiving in the United States, and it's unlikely any president will ever be able to, or would even want to change that.