Only two American holidays date back to the beginning — Independence Day and George Washington’s birthday. Labor Day was created by an act of a panicked Congress after labor unrest in 1894. And even though a common observance throughout New England going back to 1789, Thanksgiving became just our third federal holiday, by Lincoln’s pen, in 1863.
Commemorating the Indians bailing out of the starving Plymouth Colony, Thanksgiving has always been a celebration of plenty in the face of hardship. And that was certainly resonating in the darkest hours of the Depression, when a group of retailers like Macy’s lobbied Franklin Roosevelt to move the holiday. It used to be the last Thursday of every November, and when it was set to land on Nov. 29 in 1939, retailers wanted more shopping days before Christmas. FDR went along, and the holiday was moved to the fourth Thursday in November. Or at least it was supposed to be moved.
People rebelled, and only 23 states went along with the change, while 23 said hands off our holiday and celebrated a week later. (Two states said either date was fine.) Even though receipts showed that the change didn’t impact overall sales, in 1941 Congress adopted the fourth Thursday.
Thanksgiving continued happily along until the 1960s, when retailers like Macy’s started big sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Now, of course, we know it as Black Friday, America’s high holy day of deals. It’s been crowding Thanksgiving ever since. To traditionalists, it’s a heretical invasion of one of the few moments of reflection we have left; to others it’s the perfect celebration of our land of plenty. Can Thanksgiving and Black Friday coexist as two sides of the American coin?
However you look at it, Black Friday is winning. And it’s a recent phenomenon — it wasn’t even the busiest shopping day of the year until just after 2001, when we were told to shop to help support the nation in its time of need. (And it’s true, as our consumer spending seems the only thing holding the planet’s economy together.)
Black Friday is on the march again, as retailers like Macy’s are opening at midnight — some at 10 pm Thanksgiving night.
Will there be pushback, as there was in 1939? In Massachusetts, state law prohibits people from working on Thanksgiving, so Macy’s agreed to open at 12:30 am instead of midnight there. Not much of a victory, but at least they’ve drawn a line.
It’s taken a president’s hand and acts of Congress to create our holidays; maybe it’ll take the same to protect them.