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Remembering TWO Thanksgivings in one Year

Article in November 20, 1940, issue of The Gazette and Daily, York, Pa. (Newspaper Microfilms of York County Heritage Trust)
Article in November 20, 1940, issue of The Gazette and Daily, York, Pa. (Newspaper Microfilms of York County Heritage Trust)

From the time of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency until 1939, Thanksgiving had traditionally been celebrated the last Thursday in November. Retailers were also clinging to their own tradition of having the Christmas shopping season start the Friday after Thanksgiving.

In 1939, November contained five Thursdays. Retailers wanted to keep their tradition however they also wanted that extra week of shopping. The solution, the retail lobbyists convinced President Roosevelt to proclaim the second-to-last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving.

President Roosevelt made this proclamation in 1939. The President should have known better than to mess with a traditional holiday; not only that, it disrupted travel plans, sporting schedules and the like.

In 1939, Thanksgiving was not a federal holiday. Twenty-three states bowed to pressure from their citizens to maintain tradition. Pennsylvania was one of those states that kept Thanksgiving where it had always been; the last Thursday in November.

In 1940, the President stood by his proclamation; probably thinking the nation now had over a year to plan for Early Thanksgiving. It was not to be; sixteen states continued to maintain tradition. Again Pennsylvania was one of the 16 States that maintained tradition and kept Thanksgiving the last Thursday in November. The beginning of an article in the November 20th, 1940, issue of The Gazette and Daily notes:

32 States Adopt Early Thanksgiving

Two-Thirds Of Country Follows President’s Proclamation, While Other Third Clings To Tradition

Washington, Nov. 19.—The burning issue of the Thanksgiving day date has produced some curious conflicts. One village is divided half and half, certain federal and state employees are on opposite sides and some lucky workers will get double holidays.

The 16 traditionalist states included: Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee and Vermont. In 1940, all the states bordering Pennsylvania, celebrated Thanksgiving on November 21st, while Pennsylvania celebrated Thanksgiving, a week later, on November 28th. An example of a village divided, was noted in the Associated Press article:

Ohio observes [Thanksgiving] Nov. 21 and Pennsylvania Nov. 28. The village of Orangeille—population about 500—is half in Ohio and half in Pennsylvania. Mayor N. R. Williams lives in Ohio, believes in the “last Thursday” tradition, but will accept the change because all Ohio business houses will close on Nov. 21. Pennsylvania residents of the village will observe the later date [Nov. 28].

Federal employees, such as postal workers, even those in Pennsylvania, followed the President’s Proclamation, therefore having off on Nov. 21st. On Nov. 28th, when everybody else in Pennsylvania was celebrating traditional Thanksgiving, the mail was delivered.

At the last minute, as Early Thanksgiving approached in 1940, a Pittsburgh city solicitor found an old law, still on the books. This 1893 Pennsylvania Act fixed observance of any date set by the President or Governor. Pittsburgh and several other communities latched onto this act and celebrated Thanksgiving both November 21st and November 28th.

In 1941, Congress decided to get into the act; the Thanksgiving Day confusion and double holidays were becoming overly disruptive. Congress passed a resolution that officially set the date for Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November. Upon the signature of President Roosevelt it became law and Thanksgiving officially was a federal holiday that had to be observed by all states.

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