Fixing the Date for a National Holiday
The tradition of the nation giving thanks in the fall dates back to the era of President George Washington. Succeeding presidents designated the day each year by proclamation, but it was Abraham Lincoln who in 1863 made it a national holiday on the last Thursday in November.
Discussion about changing the date arose during President Roosevelt’s first year in the White House when the last Thursday was the fifth Thursday, November 30, 1933. This late date upset the Depression-ravaged business community, which foresaw fewer profitable holiday shopping days, as many Americans waited to start their Christmas purchases until after Thanksgiving. FDR chose to continue with the last Thursday of the a month until 1939 when he moved Thanksgiving to November 23. Not everyone was pleased by this change and the holiday was humorously dubbed “Franksgiving.” For the next two years, some states celebrated on the 23rd and others on the 30th. Finally, Congress passed a law setting the fourth Thursday of November as the official holiday every year.
The Roosevelts Celebrate
Until World War II, the Roosevelts would travel to Warm Springs, Georgia, to celebrate Thanksgiving with the polio patients who were in treatment at the center founded by FDR. He loved carving the turkey for the children and adults who were recovering from the same disease that had crippled him. In 1938, in her newspaper column My Day, Eleanor described sharing the meal with the patients who attended in wheelchairs or on stretchers, many wearing the heavy uncomfortable braces that the President donned on a daily basis:
Every time I come down here at this season, the picture in the dining room brings home to me more vividly than ever how extraordinarily courageous these people are…. The patients, themselves, with the aid of the newspaper men, put on a very good show after dinner. Wheelchairs and crutches were completely ignored and patients and visitors were all “kidded” in friendly fashion. I know no place where you can end the day with more reasons for being thankful.
The family did not make the trip in 1937 when FDR was suffering from a toothache. Eleanor reported: “This is the first time we have been in the White House for Thanksgiving so we felt it was rather an historical occasion for us, and we observed all the traditional customs and ate more turkey than one should eat.”
Eleanor published one or more columns every year about Thanksgiving. Her column on November 24, 1938 was typical of the blessings she believed were treasured by Americans:
This will come to all of you on Thanksgiving Day and you will have read the President’s proclamation and in your churches and in your homes you will be giving thanks for the fact that you are citizens of the United States; that under a democracy you still have the right of suffrage and may express your opinion freely and without any fear of interference unless you advocate the use of force in the overthrow of your government. For all these things we are deeply grateful, and those of us who have health are grateful for that, and those of us who have people to love, and interests which keep us mentally active are grateful for that. Above all, we are grateful for the hope of constant growth in vision and understanding as individuals and as a national group. Lastly, we are thankful for our faith in ourselves; for the feeling that we can meet and solve our problems; that we can look at ourselves honestly and finally do away with discriminations and injustices which now exist in our own country, and for the belief that we can eventually grow to the stature required of those who are citizens of a real democracy.
By 1940, the war abroad was acknowledged in her Thanksgiving message:
Today as a nation, we give thanks first and foremost for the fact that we are at peace. All of life is a struggle; at least, it should be a constant and unending struggle to make the world a better place in which to live. The struggle goes on constantly against our baser natures, but we, as individuals, are able to carry it on today without being weighed down by the knowledge that in order even to exist ourselves we must try to destroy our fellow human beings—people who live in some other bit of land and speak some other language, who claim some other nationality and yet who have the same needs and the same desires we have ourselves, and whom we could love and understand if it were not for this thing called war.
Thanksgiving During Wartime
After the US entered the war, Eleanor’s annual messages continued to celebrate the freedoms Americans enjoyed and were now fighting to bring to other nations. Her holiday columns always contained messages of condolence and sympathy for families who had lost sons or daughters to the conflict.
Even in the midst of World War II, Americans looked forward to Thanksgiving and waited for the President to issue his annual proclamation about the holiday. In 1943, he did so with these powerful words:
God’s help to us has been great in this year of march towards world-wide liberty. In brotherhood with warriors of other United Nations our gallant men have won victories, have freed our homes from fear, have made tyranny tremble, and have laid the foundation for freedom of life in a world which will be free…. Our total food production for the year is the greatest in the annals of our country. For all these things we are devoutly thankful, knowing also that so great mercies exact from us the greatest measure of sacrifice and service. Now, Therefore, I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate Thursday, November 25, 1943, as a day for expressing our thanks to God for His blessings. November having been set aside as “Food Fights for Freedom” month, it is fitting that Thanksgiving Day be made the culmination of the observance of the month by a high resolve on the part of all to produce and save food and to “share and play square” with food.
But because of the war, when the day came to observe the 1943 holiday, the President and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt found themselves separated by thousands of miles. President Roosevelt was in Cairo (Nov 22-26) attending a conference with England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China. After several days of discussions, the group issued a declaration of commitment to defeat the Japanese—requiring unconditional surrender—and outlining the return of all conquered territories in the Pacific and China as well as independence for Korea.
Roosevelt and Churchill then traveled to Tehran, Iran, to meet with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. This was the first time all three leaders would meet (Nov 28-Dec 1). While many war issues were discussed, the major agreement was a commitment by the U.S. and England, together with their allies, to open a second front against the Germans to relieve the Soviet Union. In the midst of these discussions, FDR celebrated Thanksgiving in Cairo by hosting Churchill and others in the British and American delegations, as well as his son Elliott, serving two turkeys he had brought with him to Cairo.
A Thanksgiving Launch For Roosevelt House
As FDR began his meetings in Cairo, Eleanor Roosevelt was in New York City on November 22 to attend the dedication ceremonies for Roosevelt House (then known as the Sara Delano Roosevelt Memorial House) at Hunter College. Following Sara’s death in 1941, the college had purchased the double residence from the family in 1942, made minor renovations, and celebrated its reopening as a college center with 2,000 guests in the main auditorium. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a staunch ally of the president, listened as Eleanor read a letter from FDR, in which he declared it “the finest memorial” to his mother, and a “place of sacred memories.”
Housing the college’s student religious organizations, as well as social and academic clubs, accorded well with his mother’s ecumenism. As Eleanor would also note in her remarks and newspaper column, Sara’s travels had introduced her to many cultures and faiths: “No houses could have a better background for the use they will now serve. Always in both houses there was an effort to look at all human beings with respect, and to have a true understanding of the points of views of others.” At a moment in world history when religious tolerance and respect had been cast aside in many nations, Eleanor’s quiet affirmation of such values concurred with Hunter’s mission.
After returning to Washington briefly, Eleanor spent the holiday quietly in New York with friends and family having given a speech at the International Thanksgiving Day party of the Women’s International Exposition of Arts and Industries in Madison Square Garden.
Following the death of President Roosevelt at Warm Springs on April 12, 1945, and the end of the war with the defeat of Japan in August 1945, Eleanor’s Thanksgiving columns of November 1945 rejoiced in the peace but asked Americans to consider the work ahead to maintain it. Many of her sentiments ring true today:
In the hearts of many people this Thanksgiving Day there will be a deep and fervent sense of thankfulness. The war is at an end, and many boys and men who were in constant danger are home again with their families.
As a nation, our gratitude should be deep and strong for, having passed through the years of the war, we now find ourselves certainly better able than any other nation in the world to cope with the problems of the future. First, we have never been under the yoke of a conquering army. We have no devastated regions, no factories that have been destroyed, no land that has been laid waste, no cities and towns and villages that have been reduced to mere piles of rubble.
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Above everything else, we have a people that has suffered anxiety and sorrow, but which has not had to stand up under the strain of bombing or the prospect of starvation. We have had difficulties and inconveniences, but these should have served to strengthen the fiber of our people rather than to sap their courage or their physical and metal powers. Our thanksgiving might well be approached with solemnity for, as we voice our gratitude to Almighty God for our blessings, we might well pray also for the wisdom and the spiritual strength to accept our place of leadership.
We have not only the obligation to get on with our fellow citizens at home, and to solve our problems here for our own sake, but we owe it to the people of the world. We have the resources, we have the ability. If we fail, what hope will people with problems far greater than ours be able to muster for their tasks?
We lift our hearts in gratitude this Thanksgiving Day, but let us also pray in deep humility that we may meet the demands of the great good fortune which has been vouchsafed to us as a nation.
Only one of my sons was at home for this Thanksgiving, but we kept up the old customs and thought with gratitude of our many blessings. How much more most of us get from life than we really deserve. And how fortunate it is that though most human beings are often punctilious about seeing that their fellow men get their just deserts, Providence—or, as our ancestors used to say, “the hand of the Lord”—is often much lighter and kinder than some of our fellow men.
As I look back over the years, I think that I am most grateful for the fact that my husband earned and deserved the love and respect of his countrymen. He cared greatly about his fellow men and they returned his concern with a full measure of affection.