Moving Thanksgiving


Next week, on the fourth Thursday of November, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. Schools and businesses will be closed, most for a four-day weekend. People across the nation will board planes, get into cars, and take trains to see loved ones on the busiest travel day of the year. Millions will sit down with their families to enjoy a huge feast. And then, four weeks later, we will do it all over again. Schools and businesses will be closed; people everywhere will travel to see loved ones; families will gather for celebration.

Thanksgiving is a great holiday – in fact, it is one of my favorites. But why does it have to be at the end of November? Many families only get together twice a year – once at Thanksgiving and once over the Winter/Christmas holidays – why should they be so close together? Unlike other holidays, Thanksgiving does not represent a fixed day – it does not celebrate the birth or death of a key figure, the date of a major historical event or the beginning of a new year. So why do we have it so close to the Winter holidays? We should take a page from the Canadians and move Thanksgiving to October- setting up a more balanced holiday schedule and reducing everyone’s travel burdens.

School children across the nation learn of Thanksgiving as a holiday centering on three things: Pilgrims, American Indians, and food. As I learned it, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans suffered a long and brutal winter, resulting in many deaths. The following year, the harvest was plentiful and so to celebrate, the Pilgrims and the Indians gathered for a great feast to celebrate the harvest and to give thanksgiving for their good fortunes.

This makes a great story for a second-grader. But, while some of it is based on truth, what does it have to do with the fourth Thursday in November? Thanksgiving did not become an official holiday until 1941. In the early days of the Republic, it was common for the President to issue an official proclamation calling for a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the end of a battle or a war, to honor a great figure that had died, or, in one case, to pray for the survival of the Nation. Days of thanksgiving were religious occasions, meant for prayer and reflection and to give thanks to a higher being for the benefits received in daily life. These days occurred throughout the year.

In the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in October 1863 asking that citizens set aside the last Thursday in November of that year for a day of national thanksgiving for the continued endurance of the country and to give thanks to God. He issued a similar proclamation in 1864; President Johnson did the same in 1865, and so on. Each year from 1863 to 1940, the sitting President issued a proclamation that the last Thursday of November in that year be set aside for a day of national thanksgiving. Finally, in December of 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution establishing the fourth Thursday of November as a legal public holiday and the Thanksgiving tradition as we know it today was born.

But the world was different in the 1940s. Most families lived nearby to one another; indeed, many gathered once a week for Sunday dinner. Thus, for many, Thanksgiving was just another weekend get-together with the family. Today, however, families are spread out across the nation, creating a much greater travel burden. Going home can mean hours in line at an airport and flights across the country. Many families cannot justify making two of these trips within such close proximity of one another. So why not spread the holidays out, alleviating some of this burden?

In addition, this would create a more balanced holiday schedule. Except for the bank and the post office, Columbus Day and Veterans Day have become holidays in name only. This creates quite a gap between Labor Day and the end of November. Making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in October would break up the monotony of work somewhat, giving a well-deserved break halfway between Labor Day and Christmas. Even for those celebrating the major Jewish holidays in September and October, there would be some benefit in breaking up the days that everyone has off from work.

To be perfectly fair, the best time for Thanksgiving would probably be March, which falls in the middle of the longest “holiday drought” on the calendar (between MLK Day and Memorial Day). But keeping Thanksgiving in the fall serves a number of purposes. First, it can remain true to its historical roots as a celebration of the harvest. Granted, food is now grown year-round but the autumn remains the primary season of harvest. Thanksgiving can also remain associated with such fall foods as sweet potatoes and cranberries, though in all fairness, the Pilgrims never enjoyed either of these at their meal. In addition, the autumn remains a natural time to look back on the year and be thankful. Thanksgiving could also still be associated with football, an important tradition for many Americans. And perhaps most importantly, Thanksgiving could still kick-off the holiday shopping season. Every year retailers seem to put out holiday decorations earlier and earlier; are you telling me they would not be thrilled to add an extra month onto the holiday shopping season?

So, I am starting a movement. Let us have a national day of Thanksgiving, and let it be the fourth Thursday in October. Yes, there is a danger that moving the holiday could cause the event to lose its importance, or even be cancelled. But I hope this will not be the case, because no matter what you are celebrating, religious or secular, harvest or family, we all have many things for which to be thankful. And it is important that we all stop our daily routines for at least one day each year, whether in March, October, or November, to reflect on what have and to offer thanks.

Greg Skidmore is a 3L who would like to thank his brother for the idea for this column. He hopes everyone has a great Thanksgiving.

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