When a U.S. President Tried to Change Thanksgiving

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Eleanor Roosevelt watches as the President operates on the big turkey, setting in motion the annual Thanksgiving feast at Warm Springs, Georgia. November 29, 1935.

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What if someone told you that the government planned to move Thanksgiving by a week?

This is what a group of researchers, led by Daniel Stein at the University of California at Berkeley, did: they asked people in the U.S. how they felt about the possibility of a public holiday being altered. Participants were told to imagine that the government had decided to “move celebrations for the holiday one week forward.” In reality, this is not unheard of.

In 1939, President Delano Roosevelt was trying to find ways to boost a U.S. economy that was still recovering from the Great Depression. That year, Thanksgiving fell on the last day of the month, November 30, creating a rather short holiday period. Worried that Americans wouldn’t start their holiday shopping until after that date, business lobbyists floated the idea of moving Thanksgiving a week earlier, to November 23, so that consumers would spend more money during the prolonged shopping season. After all, what could be more American than such a market-driven approach? Convinced by this argument, Roosevelt issued an executive proclamation announcing the change on August 15. Then all hell broke loose.

The decision immediately caused an uproar. The majority of Americans strongly disapproved of the change, and Roosevelt’s political opponents went as far as comparing him to Hitler. When November came, most states refused to enforce the order, and the country had a split Thanksgiving: the new official but much maligned one, which quickly became derisively known as Franksgiving, and the time-honored alternative, occurring on the original date. Some states chose to celebrate both.

The schism continued for two years until Rosevelt capitulated. In 1941, a joint resolution was signed, setting Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November, where it remains to this day.

Almost a century later, participants in the Stein experiment expressed similar condemnation at the thought of such alterations. But not all holidays were equal. Whether religious or secular, holidays associated with rituals—for example, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day—elicited about twice as much outrage as less ritualized holidays such as Columbus Day, Labor Day, or George Washington’s birthday. People did not merely find these alterations annoying or inconvenient; they judged them to be morally appalling.

Further studies and measures by the same researchers showed that even minor alterations, such as changing a single ingredient of a sacred meal, were enough to elicit condemnation, even to the point where people were motivated to punish other members of their in-group for failing to uphold the group’s ritual traditions. For example, fraternity members said that it was wrong to neglect group rituals such as saying the Creed or reciting the founders’ names, and they expressed anger and frustration at new members who skipped them. On the other hand, they did not feel as upset at violations of less ritualistic traditions, such as missing registration day or study hours. When they ranked those events in terms of how ritualized they were—for instance, how much repetition, redundancy, and rigidity they involved—the researchers found that the rankings corresponded to participants’ moral judgments: the more ritualized the event, the more upsetting people found its omission.

Alterations to group rituals provoke moral indignation because they are perceived as an affront to sacred group values. By definition, rituals have no intrinsic meaning—they involve arbitrary actions that have no direct causal outcomes. This allows them to become vehicles for communicating and reinforcing any values endorsed by the group. Rather than mere representations of those values, they become their very embodiment. From a rational perspective, they may seem senseless, but the psychology of ritual reveals that across all societies, they are deeply meaningful.

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