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Thanksgiving with the Presidents

Today’s guest post comes from Susan Donius, Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries at the National Archives. This post originally appeared on the White House blog.

Did you know that before the 1940s, Thanksgiving was not on a fixed date but was whenever the President proclaimed it to be?

George Washington issued the first Presidential proclamation for the holiday in 1789.  That year he designated Thursday, November 26 as a national day of “public thanksgiving.”  The United States then celebrated its first Thanksgiving under its new Constitution.   Seventy-four years later, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday on the last Thursday in November.

By the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday; it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on.  Tradition had dictated that the holiday be celebrated on the last Thursday of the month, however, this tradition became increasingly difficult to continue during the challenging times of the Great Depression.

Roosevelt’s first Thanksgiving in office fell on November 30, the last day of the month, because November had five Thursdays that year. This meant that there were only about 20 shopping days until Christmas and statistics showed that most people waited until after Thanksgiving to begin their holiday shopping.  Business leaders feared they would lose the much-needed revenue an extra week of shopping would afford them. They asked President Roosevelt to move the holiday up from the 30th to the 23rd.  He chose to keep the Thanksgiving holiday on the last Thursday of the month, however, as it had been for nearly three-quarters of a century.

In 1939, with the country still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, Thanksgiving once again threatened to fall on the last day of November. This time President Roosevelt did move Thanksgiving up a week to the 23rd. Changing the date seemed harmless enough, but it proved to be quite controversial.  Small business owners felt it put them at a disadvantage and they sent letters of protest to the President.

As opposition grew, some states took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential proclamation. Some Governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place.  Families who lived in states such as New York did not have the same day off as family members in states such as Connecticut! Family and friends were unable to celebrate the holiday together.  In this telegram from November 13, 1940, Leota and Helen Care ask FDR what day they should serve their turkey.

Telegram sent to President Roosevelt

President Roosevelt observed Thanksgiving on the second to last Thursday of November for two more years, but the amount of public outrage prompted Congress to pass a law on December 26, 1941, ensuring that all Americans would celebrate a unified Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

Six years later, another tradition was formally established when Harry S. Truman presided over the first live turkey presentation by the Poultry and Egg National Board.  The event inaugurated a lighthearted ceremony that now occurs annually at the White House.  Initially, the presentation birds were intended for the Thanksgiving meal.  In fact, among our holdings are photos from 1963 and 1967 in which the presentations birds given to John F. Kennedy and later, Lyndon B. Johnson, wear signs that read, “Good Eating Mr. President.”

Senator Everett Dirksen and representatives from the poultry industry and farm organizations present a turkey to President Johnson in the Fish Room of the White House. The turkey has a sign around its neck that says "Good Eating Mr. President.” November 16, 1967. From the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidental Library.

It wasn’t until November 14, 1989 that President George Bush officially “granted a Presidential pardon” to a turkey.

President George Bush formally pardons the turkey for the first time in 1989.

 

For highlights of Presidents celebrating Thanksgiving over the years, here’s a gallery from the holdings of the U.S. National Archives and the 13 Presidential libraries across the country.

Kids reach out to touch the Thanksgiving turkey in the Rose Garden at the White House after "Flyer" was officially pardoned by President Bush. November 26, 2008. From the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

 

George W. Bush helps to serve Thanksgiving dinner at the Bob Hope Dining Facility, Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, during a surprise visit with troops. November 27, 2003. From the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

William Jefferson Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton help to prepare Thanksgiving dinner meals for the homeless at the Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, DC. November 24, 1993. From the Clinton Presidential Library.

George Bush celebrating Thanksgiving with the troops in Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield. November 22, 1990. From the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library.

President Reagan receives the Thanksgiving turkey from the National Turkey Federation in the Rose Garden. November 18, 1981. From the Reagan Presidential Library.

Amy and Rosalynn Carter meeting with “Purdue Pete” and the National Turkey Foundation. November 21, 1978. From the Carter Presidential Library.

White House Staff Message with menu and information about the Thanksgiving meal at Camp David, from Rosalynn Carter’s Press Office. November 24, 1977. From the Carter Presidential Library.

Gerald R. Ford is presented with a Thanksgiving turkey by the National Turkey Federation. The turkey was presented by Marvin DeWitt of Zeeland, Michigan. According the White House memo, it was the first time that the President, the turkey, and the presenter were all from the same state. Senator Robert P. Griffin (Michigan) and Congressman Guy Vander Jagt (Michigan) were also at the event. November 20, 1975. From the Ford Presidential Library.

Pat Nixon with the White House Chefs in the kitchen, viewing the Thanksgiving turkey and vegetables, November 19, 1970. From the Nixon Presidential Library.

Presentation of a Thanksgiving turkey to John F. Kennedy. Senator Everett Dirksen accompanies members of the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation in the Rose Garden. November 19, 1963. From the Kennedy Presidential Library.

Dwight D. Eisenhower receives a 43-pound turkey from Perry Browning of Winchester, Kentucky, president of the National Turkey Federation. Eisenhower holds the book, “Turkey Management,” which was also presented. The presentation took place outside at the White House. November 14, 1954. From the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

Harry S. Truman receiving a Thanksgiving turkey from members of the Poultry and Egg National Board and other representatives of the turkey industry, outside the White House. November 16, 1949. From the Truman Presidential Library.

Photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt carving the Thanksgiving turkey. November 20, 1933. From the Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Letter to Herbert Hoover suggesting that Thanksgiving be moved from Thursday to Friday. October 28, 1929. From the Hoover Presidential Library.

Presentation of a Thanksgiving turkey to John F. Kennedy. Senator Everett Dirksen accompanies members of the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation in the Rose Garden. November 19, 1963. From the Kennedy Presidential Library.
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