The Curious Case of the Thanksgiving Date

Sometimes this day of thanks didn’t even fall in November. For example, in 1857, Missouri’s governor Robert Stewart “fixed upon Thursday, the 31st day of December.

The cover of Newsweek in 1939 shows the division of Thanksgiving.

The Curious Case of the Thanksgiving Date

By Diane Euston

 History tells us that the first Thanksgiving, an autumn harvest festival, occurred in the fall of 1621 among about 50 Pilgrims and around 90 Wampanoag Indians. Originally a three-day celebration attended by men, the significance of the holiday and the date it is celebrated has morphed over the years.

 The first “official” Thanksgiving holiday proclamation was declared by George Washington. He called for a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to be observed Thursday., Nov. 26, 1789. Meant to help celebrate the end of the Revolutionary War, Thanksgiving was more of a religious holiday than a turkey and gravy one.

 It would take 75 years exactly for another national declaration of Thanksgiving to be added to the calendar. During this period of time, individual states and territories would decide when to designate a day of thanks. Sometimes this day of thanks didn’t even fall in November. For example, in 1857, Missouri’s governor Robert Stewart “fixed upon Thursday, the 31st day of December, as a day of Thanksgiving throughout the State of Missouri.”

 To no surprise, the next time there was a national declaration of giving thanks on a specific date didn’t happen until our nation was at war again. After the victory at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Oct. 3, 1863 that we “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving.”  

 The country was severed in half during the Civil War. Locally, the state line was a battleground between the North and South. Another battle less critical was brewing. In 1864, president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis threw a curveball and appointed Wed., Nov. 16th as the day of “rebel thanksgiving.” He invited people of the Confederate states “to assemble on the day aforesaid, in their place of public worship . . . [and] that He restore peace to our beloved country, healing its bleeding wounds and securing to us the continued right of self-government and independence.” This put the Confederate turkey day the day before the date suggested by President Lincoln.

 More confusion on the official date of Thanksgiving occurred in 1939. The Depression era had depleted the nation’s economy, and just like today, the sales during the holiday season was a make-or-break for many merchants.  Traditionally, the fourth Thursday in November was the default date across the country; however, the fourth Thursday would land Thanksgiving Nov. 30, 1939.


 The concern was that losing extra shopping days between turkey day and Christmas would be harmful to the economy. In response, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt was pressured to issue a proclamation declaring the third Thursday the “official” Thanksgiving, moving the date to Nov. 23rd.

 The response nationwide was one of havoc and confusion. In addition, it threw a bombshell on football schedules set a year in advance. Locally, one tradition was in danger of being lost and had Missouri and Kansas up in arms.

 Traditionally at the time, the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas played their rival football game on Thanksgiving day each year. It was KU’s turn to host the Tigers in Lawrence, but the confusion over the date had things on hold.

 Because President Roosevelt’s proclamation truly only affected the the District of Columbia and territories belonging to the United States, it was up to the governors of each state to decide when to celebrate the day. The MU-KU game was scheduled to be held on Nov. 30 on the date everyone assumed would be Thanksgiving.

 This had the governors of each state deciding whether to follow Pres. Roosevelt or hold to the generally accepted fourth Thursday in November date of Nov. 30th. And just like the Border Wars, Missouri and Kansas chose two different sides.

 Gov. Payne H. Ratner of Kansas declared, “The Thanksgiving day of November 30, 1939, which is fixed in the calendar and upon which so many people have made definite plans will be retained in Kansas.”

 Missouri governor Lloyd C. Stark signed his declaration in August and announced, “We will have only one Thanksgiving day in Missouri. That will be the date set by the President of the United States.”  

 This created a pretty serious headache for the two states’s largest universities. If the Thanksgiving Border Wars game between MU and KU was played on Nov. 23, KU would have to change its class schedules. If Mizzou had to play the Thursday after their holiday vacation, they would miss class and attendance at the game would be affected.

 A solution was reached; the game, traditionally held on Thanksgiving day, was moved to Sat., Nov. 25 “because of the two conflicting turkey dates in the two states.”

 Missouri won 20-0.

 Due to the chaos leading up to the 1939 Thanksgiving, Pres. Roosevelt gave advanced notice when he designated Thurs., Nov. 21st (the third Thursday in Nov.) the official Thanksgiving for 1940. He declared the date in October 1939.

 Congress passed a law Dec. 26, 1941 giving us a “unified Thanksgiving the fourth day of November.” Thankfully since then, there has been no confusion as to when we gather to give our thanks across the nation.


Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to


2 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Thanksgiving Date

  1. Just read that Theodore Roosevelt came back from the grave to pretend to be FDR and change Thanksgiving Day in 1939. Amazing! ⚾

  2. … then again, the day named after the Germanic god of war (Thor–Thursday) was apparently the 4th day of November by proclamation 📃of Congress for the year 1940.⛄

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