The History of the Thanksgiving Holiday

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Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. But that was not always the case.

When Abraham Lincoln was president in 1863, he proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be our national Thanksgiving Day. In 1865, Thanksgiving was celebrated the first Thursday of November, because of a proclamation by President Andrew Johnson, and, in 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant chose the third Thursday for Thanksgiving Day. In all other years, until 1939, Thanksgiving was celebrated as Lincoln had designated, the last Thursday in November.

Then, in 1939, responding to pressure from the National Retail Dry Goods Association to extend the Christmas shopping season, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday back a week, to the next-to-last Thursday of the month. The association had made a similar request in 1933, but at that time, Roosevelt thought the change might cause too much confusion. As it turns out, waiting to make the change in 1939 didn’t avoid any confusion.

At the time, the president’s 1939 proclamation only directly applied to the District of Columbia and federal employees. While governors usually followed the president’s lead with state proclamations for the same day, on this year, 23 of the 48 states observed Thanksgiving Day on November 23, 23 states celebrated on November 30, and Texas and Colorado declared both Thursdays to be holidays. Football coaches scrambled to reschedule games set for November 30, families didn’t know when to have their holiday meals, calendars were inaccurate in half of the country, and people weren’t sure when to start their Christmas shopping.

After two years of confusion and complaint, President Roosevelt signed legislation establishing Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November. Roosevelt, recognizing the problems caused by his 1939 decree, had announced a plan to return to the traditional Thanksgiving date in 1942. But Congress introduced the legislation to ensure that future presidential proclamations could not affect the scheduling of the holiday. Their plan to designate the fourth Thursday of the month allowed Thanksgiving Day to fall on the last Thursday in five out of seven years.

For more information on Franklin Roosevelt and Thanksgiving, please visit The FDR Presidential Library.

Written by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.