Thanksgiving was originally a spontaneous celebration. Over time it grew into a social custom. It did not become an official holiday until Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863. Then in 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date.
New England Puritans must have needed an alternative holiday because they did not like to celebrate Christmas. Massachusetts in 1659 passed an act punishing with a fine of five shillings “anybody who is found observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas day,” according to the historian Daniel Boorstin.
No taking it easy, no feasting. The law was repealed in 1681, writes Boorstin, but upstanding Puritans still preferred to go about business as usual on Christmas. Thanksgiving would have given them a rare break.
By mid-19th century Puritanism was no more. Or rather, it was a joke. The humor writer with the pen name Artemus Ward said in his 1859 Fourth of July oration: “Peple which hung idiotic old wimin for witches … may hav bin very nice folks in their way, but I confess I don’t admire their stile ..”
Lincoln – incidentally, an avid reader of Ward and an admirer of his style – gave the day off to federal employees. Following that, states legislated the holiday.
In 1939, November had five Thursdays and Thanksgiving fell on the 30th. But that meant a late start for the Christmas shopping season. Store owners needed all the time they could get, what with lackluster sales. The economy was weak despite a wide variety of nostrums from the FDR administration—or more likely because of those various nostrums.
So Roosevelt proclaimed that Thanksgiving should come on November 23, the fourth Thursday, to allow more time for Christmas shopping. It was a kind of stimulus. Not clear that the change had any stimulating effect in 1939, but certainly shopping came to be a national preoccupation between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Here is another oratory gem from Ward (via Boorstin): “I hain’t got time to notis the growth of Ameriky from the time when the Mayflowers cum over in the Pilgrim and brawt Plymouth Rock with them, but every skool boy nose our kareer has been tremenjis.”
He garbled the history a bit, but you have to agree that “our kareer has been tremenjis.” Have a tremendous Thanksgiving.