Moving Thanksgiving Makes As Much Sense as Sales Tax Holidays

November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving as an American tradition of course dates back to 1641, when the Pilgrims celebrated a bountiful harvest from individual farming after nearing starving to death under collective farming. President George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day for October 3, 1789, and such proclamations occurred sporadically until President Lincoln set an annual Thanksgiving holiday for the last Thursday in November, beginning in 1863. It was celebrated as such every year by tradition until 1941, when the holiday was set in federal law.

Well not quite every year. In 1939, with Thanksgiving set to occur on November 30, the National Retail Dry Goods Association lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt to move the holiday to November 23 to create an additional week of Christmas shopping. Roosevelt, over much public opposition, did so. Many states refused to move the holiday and some states even celebrated both. In 1940 and 1941, Roosevelt proclaimed the holiday to fall on the third Thursday in November as well, but for 1941, Congress set it as the fourth Thursday where it has remained since.

Part of the reason the retailers gave up on their extra week of shopping is that sales didn't change. Just like with sales tax holidays, the evidence was that purchases did not increase; shoppers just changed the timing of when they shopped. They are both political gimmicks, although moving Thanksgiving has proven to a politically unwise one.

UPDATE: Alert readers sent me a column from today's Wall Street Journal on this very topic, including figures and sources for the failure of the holiday move to boost sales in 1939 and 1940.

Another alert reader argues similarities to candy company efforts to get another hour of daylight for Halloween.

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