Episode #24: The Strange Story of the Original Franksgiving

Grad Conn

December 4, 202013 min read

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Today, the US Thanksgiving holiday is steeped in warm feelings of gratitude and Norman Rockwell-inspired family gatherings. But it wasn’t always that way. This is the story of “Franksgiving.” It’s a convoluted tale of political infighting, calendar machinations and, possibly, the first example of Godwin’s Law. Put your feet up, grab a slice of pumpkin pie, and enjoy.

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Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, this is a special, special, special, special special podcast today. It’s Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. Most people would say, gee, you’re really doing podcasts on Thanksgiving? You know, we never rest at the CXM Experience, because customer experience is all about being there all the time. So we don’t take days off. You’re also going to hear a Christmas Day podcast. But this is our Thanksgiving Day podcast.

And I’m actually going to talk about something that I talk about every year on my blog. I mean, not every year, but many years on my blog, which is the controversy surrounding this actual holiday. And I’m going to start with a reference to an old movie, I’m going to talk a little bit about politics, I’m going to talk a little bit about history. And I’m going to talk a little bit about FDR and Lincoln. It’s going to be a fun little pass through US history here. So enjoy. And as you’re sitting there, preparing your turkey, you can listen to this podcast go by.

So let me start with a little bit of perspective on politics. I have loved and followed American politics for a long time, since I was a kid. But I’ve been religiously watching the McLaughlin Group since it started in the mid 80s. And then, I’m watching Meet the Press, the same amount. And those are probably my two favorite shows. I’ve seen a bunch of other stuff too. But Meet the Press and McLaughlin Group are definitely up there. Great to see the McLaughlin Group back. So when John died a few years ago, they obviously went off the air. But Tom Rogan brought it back and did a trial version of it on one of the networks about a year ago, year and a half ago. And now they’re back on PBS, which is fantastic. And so they’re there, they’ve been doing remotely, but they’re doing a great job.

And so, the thing that I always find interesting about politics is that people have a tendency to believe that this is the worst time. We’ve never been more divided. You know, this person is a dictator, there’s a whole set of catch words and catch phrases. Since World War II, Hitler gets trotted out fairly frequently as people talking about stuff. I think that what’s useful… it is really useful to read history. And not enough people do it. Because when you look at history… you got to go back to the newspapers, the things that people used to say about each other in politics were quite shocking.

There’s an incident in US history where a senator beat another senator with his cane. Like beat them into submission with his cane. And then when he went back to his office, his constituents sent him more canes as support for the beating. We don’t really hear about that anymore. There are not fistfights. The British Parliament, if you ever go to the British Parliament and see the House of Parliament, the members desks… members of Parliament MP desks are very close together. You might think, Well, why are they so close together? Well, they were actually set up that way specifically, so that it would be too difficult to draw your sword and stab the other MPs. We’ve really come a long way. There’s way fewer stabbings and beatings in politics than there used to be. It’s just words now. But some of the words if you go back to the Lincoln Douglas debates, it’s shocking. The things that people would say about each other would not be acceptable today.

And so I always caution people when they say we’ve never been more divided or politics have never been more divisive… it’s always been this way. It’s always been this way. And, I’ll roll out an example, which is a Thanksgiving themed example, around what we’ll call Franksgiving. And, and so Franksgiving was a derisive and negative name given to Thanksgiving in the 1940s. And I’ll explain why and what the origin of it is.

So if you ever seen the movie Holiday Inn… it’s a deeply flawed movie. Some almost extraordinarily racist — not even undertones — there’s extraordinarily racist tones in it. And they’re so deeply embedded in the movie and in so many scenes you can’t really edit them out. It was deeply flawed from that standpoint, a little difficult to watch. However, it is the first movie in which the song White Christmas appeared. And it’s an all Irving Berlin soundtrack and it features Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby and it’s got some wonderful dance sequences in it. So if you if you skip through the racist garbage and just try to enjoy the art of Irving Berlin and the musicians and the dance, then there’s something to be drawn from it.

Now, in the movie, there is a scene where… so basically the whole concept of the Holiday Inn movie, it’s got nothing to do with the hotel chain. It was long before the hotel chain existed. The movie’s idea is Bing Crosby is a performer, wannabe nightclub owner. Decides to leave the business, goes to a farm. Has a terrible time as a farmer, the worst job in the world, way more work than being a nightclub performer. Decides to… ends up in a sanitarium, which is this hilarious scene. You wouldn’t think so, but it is. And then comes back with this great idea. His great idea is… stays on the farm. But now he turns the farm into a performance venue called Holiday Inn. And they only perform on the holidays. So there’s quite a few holidays, if you look at the year. And so basically it’s an opportunity for all these amazing Irving Berlin songs like Easter Parade, and White Christmas, etc. to play through this show. And they go through a full sequence of holidays in the movie.

So when they get each one, they have a little animated card before the holiday. So the way the movie cuts itself is they’ll have a scene and then they’ll essentially cut to black. And cut to a title card, which will be: now we’re going to talk about Easter, and then boom, you go right into Easter. So that way the movie moves fairly quickly through essentially a year and a half of history. And this title card is the Thanksgiving one. And what’s really interesting about the very first time I saw the movie… and literally Holiday Inn — a little bit of Grad trivia here — it’s the first movie I ever rented. I rented a VHS player, the machine… I didn’t have the machine, this is back when I was in college. And I rented the VHS tape. I don’t even know how much it was… probably quite a bit of money. And set it all up. And this is the very first movie I rented and saw. So that’s why I’m so frustrated with some of the challenging parts of this movie. But it is an important part of my memories.

Anyway, so the title card for Thanksgiving. So there’s a picture of the calendar and you see Thanksgiving Day on the 20th of November. And then there’s a little turkey, little gobble gobble turkey, animated in that classic 1940 style. And the turkey’s on the 20th. And then it flips to the 27th. And the turkey runs to the 27th. Then it flips back to the 20th. And the turkey runs back to the 20th. And it’s flipping back and forth between the 20th and 27th. The turkey is running back and forth and gets really frustrated. And I’ve always wondered… what is that? Like, why are they doing that? Why they’re running the turkey back and forth?

Well, there’s a little bit of history here. And the history, which is I think is very interesting, is that Thanksgiving’s actually a relatively modern holiday. It’s only been an official holiday since 1941. Now, US presidents have declared a general day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November. And that custom was started by Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War. But it didn’t become an official day until it was embodied in a joint resolution of Congress. It was signed into law by President Roosevelt on November the 26th 1941. And it was designated as the fourth Thursday of November of each year as Thanksgiving Day. And we still do that today.

But that is an interesting time because FDR, as he was known, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a very controversial president. He’s generally viewed now as a great president. But at the time he was accused of being a dictator. There were massive opposition to the programs that he was running. Some of the things that were said about him were horrible. And there’s some controversy in terms of the actual date. And the fact that he declared the date was actually very controversial itself.

So basically, what happened is, in October of 1941, Roosevelt decided to deviate from the custom of declaring a day of Thanksgiving and actually declare November 23, the second to last Thursday, as Thanksgiving that year. And that short notice change in dates affected the holiday plans of millions of Americans. For example, many college football teams routinely ended their seasons with rivalry games on Thanksgiving and had scheduled them for that year for the last day in November. And some athletic conferences had rules permitting games only through the Saturday following Thanksgiving. So if the day were changed, many of those teams would play their games to empty stadiums or not at all. The change also caused problems for college registrar’s schedulers and calendar makers. And a Gallup poll discovered that Democrats favored this switch 52 to 48. Kind of tight. While the republicans opposed it 79 to 21. Sounds familiar, right? Overall, Americans opposed the change 62 to 38.

So after announcing in August 1939, that he was similarly designate November 21 of the next year, Roosevelt issued on October 31, his official proclamation calling for a general day of Thanksgiving on November 23. So this declaration amounted essentially moral authority of the presidency. But each state could still independently determine when to cancel work for the state and municipal employees. So 23 states and the District of Columbia recognized the non traditional date that FDR had set up. And 22 States preserved the traditional date going from the 1860s on November 30. And then three states, Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas just said, we’re going to do holidays on both the dates, on both the weeks.

And so we like to talk about partisan politics but listen to this passage, right? When Roosevelt was essentially declaring Thanksgiving. “So the plan encountered immediate opposition, Alf Landon Roosevelt’s Republican challenger in the preceding election called the declaration, another illustration of the confusion which Roosevelt’s impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out, instead of springing it upon unprepared company with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

How about that, look at that. He’s referring to Hitler, based on FDR, deciding to declare the second last Thursday, not the last Thursday as Thanksgiving. I mean, it’s amazing. This is a long time ago. This is 80 years ago, and people still whipping the Hitler thing out. And this is really… Hitler’s still the chancellor at that point. They hadn’t even started the war. So while not all critics were political opponents of the president, most parts of New England, then a republican stronghold relative to the rest of the nation (things change) were among the most vocal areas. James Frazier, the chairman of the selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts, which is the commonly alleged location on the first Thanksgiving holiday, heartily disapproved.

Anyway, so I decided to talk about this. And so basically, what happened is that the whole country was massively confused, because they celebrated on the last Thursday. Roosevelt wanted to move to the second last Thursday, and the reason was to give more time for retail. And then, confusion entailed. And so what you see in the Holiday Inn is you see the turkey being confused, because the date was moving back and forth. And no one really knew when Thanksgiving was. Which is I think is just hilarious. I love what we can argue about.

And I’ll end with a little bit of a note of positivity here. Because the reason I like to talk about this is that, people get almost despondent about politics. I mean, they really haven’t changed. They really haven’t changed. And I think it’s a good thing, democracy should be messy. And it should be vocal, and it should be different opinions, and there should be clashes. It’s a great thing. And I’m a new American. I mean, I became an American citizen in 2015. So I’m relatively new to the country. But I love it. I think it’s fantastic though the dynamism of the country. It’s very powerful.

And, I’ll quote Churchill and this was the Churchill quote for Thanksgiving. Churchill really didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. But let me end with a Churchill quote, because I do think it’s a good reminder that while democracy’s a messy affair, it’s better than anything else out there. Right. So from Churchill By Himself, page 574. This is his quote:

“Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect, or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

So I’ll leave you on that note. Have a happy Thanksgiving. Do whatever you do to stay safe. But stay connected with family. There’s many ways to do it. I’ve set up a room in Facebook, and we’ll probably do something in Zoom as well. I think the Facebook room thing is a really cool idea. They’re launching that right now to get everyone to do that. Be connected, stay with family, talk to people, support the ones you love. And think back over what has been a difficult year for a lot of people. But also think about the things that have happened that have been good. And good things have happened and many things have changed. And in many ways we have had moments and opportunities to do things we wouldn’t normally have done. And think about how that may have changed your life in a positive way.

For the CXM Experience. This is Grad Conn and I’ll see you next time.

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