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North Hills Monthly

What was the most confusing Thanksgiving the U.S. ever had—and why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

Oct 31, 2014 12:54PM ● By Charles Reichblum
In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt thought he had a great idea. To help the nation’s economy, he said it would be good to advance Thanksgiving from its traditional fourth Thursday of November to the third Thursday of the month in order to start the Christmas shopping season earlier and make for a longer holiday shopping season.

So Roosevelt issued a proclamation changing the date of Thanksgiving, but there was just one problem: 24 of the then 48 states accepted Roosevelt’s proclamation, but the other 24 didn’t, and kept the holiday on the fourth Thursday. There was confusion around the nation—half of the states had Thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November and the other half had it on the fourth Thursday. If you wanted to visit Grandma in another state on Thanksgiving weekend, you had to check and make sure her Thanksgiving was the same as yours. If it wasn’t, either you left on your Thanksgiving and visited her on her non-holiday weekend, or you left on your non-holiday to be with her during her Thanksgiving.

Merchants, the national media—and just about everybody—was confused across the nation. Travel plans and work days were all mixed up. Roosevelt abandoned his idea the next year and then Congress made it official when it passed a law declaring that from then on, Thanksgiving would ALWAYS be on the fourth Thursday of November for the whole country.

So when we all sit down to dinner on that day, why do we eat turkey? Would you believe that at the first Thanksgiving dinners with the Pilgrims, they did not eat turkey, according to many historians? These scholars say that it’s more likely that the Pilgrims at those first Thanksgivings ate venison, goose, duck and fish.

The idea of turkey at Thanksgiving began in the 1860s when President Abraham Lincoln was the first president to declare Thanksgiving a regular, annual national holiday. Turkey gradually became the traditional Thanksgiving fare, helped by the abundance of turkeys then in many parts of America and the custom at that time of cooking turkeys for special occasions.

(Dr. Knowledge is heard on KDKA and the CBS radio network with his “Knowledge in a Nutshell” feature, and is author of the “Knowledge in a Nutshell” and “Dr. Knowledge Presents…” book series).