Moving Thanksgiving Just Might Save the Economy

  • Share
  • Read Later

It is de rigueur to groan about the ever expanding Christmas season, about the tinsel and holly busting out before the first frost and those irksome Walmart ads pushing layaway plans alongside Labor Day promotions.

In most years, such grumbling is justified. This year, however, the aggressive early sales push is brought on not (only) by retailer greed but also by a wholly artificial and easily solvable problem: the calendar.

Thanksgiving, of course, falls on Nov. 28, its latest possible date under the 1941 law that set it on the fourth Thursday of the month. That gives Santa and his helpers just 26 shopping days and four weekends until Christmas Eve. It won’t, in fact, be until 2018 that the Gregorian gods see fit to provide that all-valuable fifth shopping weekend once more.

(MORE: Working on Holidays is the New Class Divide)

But why? What is so sacrosanct about holding Thanksgiving on that Thursday? Why not, for the good of all that is good and holy about Best Buy and Hobby Lobby, reschedule it for, say, the Thursday before the fourth Sunday of the month? Would not Susan Stamberg’s mother-in-law’s cranberry relish on any other date taste as sweet and sour? What could be less American than clinging to a “tradition” when tweaking it in an imperceptible way could save Christmas, at least economically?

Moving Thanksgiving sounds nuts, but it’s not unprecedented. The first time the Pilgrims and Indians broke bread together back in 1621, they did so somewhere between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, so we’re already way off the mark. Starting in 1863, Presidents issued annual declarations for the holiday and pegged it for the final Thursday of November, which meant it could fall even later than it does this year.

Then, in 1939, Thanksgiving was expected to fall on Nov. 30, leaving a scant 24 shopping days until Christmas Eve, and retailers begged for a reprieve amid a fragile but steady economic recovery. (Sound familiar?) FDR obliged, moving it to Nov. 23 that year and Nov. 24 in 1940. In a pre-TV era of more cumbersome communications, there was widespread confusion and pushback from some states, so Congress in 1941 officially slated Thanksgiving for the fourth Thursday of the month. The effort did produce a victory, though — the banishment of a fifth-Thursday holiday.

Before the traditionalists lose their pecan pie, keep in mind that we monkey around with the calendar for economic reasons all the time. Daylight saving time, for instance, was a wholly invented construct to reduce energy consumption and was shifted in 2007 without much hullabaloo. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is on a Monday near his birthday but not always on it, Presidents’ Day is a Franken-holiday plopped vaguely around the coincidentally close birthdays of Lincoln and Washington, and Columbus Day is in mid-October even though the fella didn’t make it as close as Cuba until Oct. 28, 1492.

Nor, for that matter, are we above convoluted date designations. Election Day is the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November. It sounds like an early voter-suppression plot, but somehow we work it out.

To change Thanksgiving would require an act of Congress, and there’s no movement in that direction, but there should be. Concrete proof that the shrunken shopping period is disruptive is elusive because of the many broader variables at play in comparing the years, but marketing experts say it is obviously a detriment to reduce shopping days and, more important, the number of shopping weekends. The calendar “is a structural factor, and it matters,” said Ed Fox, director of the JCPenney Center for Retail Excellence at Southern Methodist University. “Last year, Thanksgiving was on the 22nd.  This year it’s six days later. All other things being equal — and all other things are never equal — it would be worth a few percentage points in revenue. People would spend more over the longer period.”

(MORE: The Genetics of Bargain Hunting)

Fewer shopping days, however, will mean larger, more concentrated crowds and slower customer service. That, in fact, is why so many stores will open on Thanksgiving Day this year, the better for easing congestion. The next few shortened seasons are also bound to accelerate the shift of more Americans toward doing their shopping online. As Representative Anna Eshoo, the Democrat representing Silicon Valley, boasted in berating the makers of the disastrously glitchy Obamacare website at a hearing on Oct. 24, eBay and Amazon don’t crash the week before Christmas.

It would be pretty easy to reschedule future Thanksgivings in the modern era. Unlike the confusion that faced FDR, these days a Google doodle, a tweet from Katy Perry and a crawl mention on CNN would probably suffice to get the word out. Macy’s and the NFL surely could move their traditional events with minimal drama. People would get used to it. Maybe Congress could finally broker a grand bargain worth something. Retailers could have a mandated five-weekend shopping period forever in exchange for a ban on the word Christmas in advertising until, say, Election Day. O.K., O.K. — Halloween. Let’s not go crazy here.

Friess is an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based freelance writer and former senior writer covering technology for Politico who teaches journalism at Michigan State University. The views expressed are solely his own. You can follow him on Twitter @stevefriess.

11 comments
mysticalcrystal69
mysticalcrystal69

The point I want to make is from every person that ever sells anything at a profit in this entire world this would affect their lives. It wouldn't make the economy better and to restrict advertising for any reason will limit even further the freedoms that we as Americans have come to take for granted for so long. The simple fact is if you don't like the layaway department advertising then by all means don't use that service but don't make it impossible for those of us that do like the department to be able to use it because for some of us it will be the only way we can afford gifts for our family. and tin the words of Sam Walton himself he always wanted us to save money so we could live better.


mysticalcrystal69
mysticalcrystal69

the Christmas season and advertising has nothing to do with retail greed. It has everything to do with hoping the layaway department can help its customers get everything they want to before the Christmas rush so they can afford to live without credit cards so that advertising is very important. So before you get on your retail greed soap box why don't you think about all of the millions of employees that works for these companies that rely on the economy for their very lively hoods. It is more than just the people you see in the stores. It's everyone from the warehouse where things get processed to the factories that sell their wares to the stores. Why don't you think about every overworked over stressed employee that is working so very hard so that you can have enough time to enjoy your holiday instead of having to fight with the many consumers that put everything off to the last minute. only  a Scrooge would write something like this.


rickblaine3
rickblaine3

Forget changing Thanksgiving Day...

If you want to save the economy, let's just move Black Friday to the first Friday of the year.

That way, all of the stores, retailers, etc. would pretty much be in "the black" (i.e., profitable) from the get go each year!

Man...this whole "fixing the economy" stuff is a whole lot easier than I thought it would be when I started thinking about it during breakfast today.

MiloBendech
MiloBendech

Why not make Thanksgiving a monthlong celebration so families can pick and choose the day they want to gather with friends and family.

Make the shopping day a month long...each retailer deciding which  day to do deep discounts

hogi
hogi

Holidays are not about how much money a retailer can strip out of their customer's pocket. Greed needs to stop shaping our holidays. The holidays are time of respect and remembrance of the special event. It is a time to renew families not strengthen corporations.

Do not blame the consumer for corporate greed. 

Why is so hard for corporations to state we respect what the holiday stands for and we will honor that tradition instead of whining about how much money they are potentially losing?

DrJehr
DrJehr

Let's move Thanksgiving to July.  That way the shoppers will have plenty of time to buy gifts no one wants.  

therantguy
therantguy

You understand that there are always 365 days of shopping before Christmas right? Like picking an artificial starting point doesn't change that Dec 25 falls on the same day every year and you can, gasp, buy a Christmas present whenever you want?

Adam_Smith
Adam_Smith

@therantguy Agreed. Furthermore, retailers are free to schedule their sales, for Christmas or otherwise, whenever it suits them. It there is anything real to be gained from earlier Christmas shopping how come vendors and customers between them aren't figuring it out on their own? Why should it depend on an act of Congress to move a national holiday? It isn't happening on its own because it almost certainly won't make a real difference. Even if it slightly increases Christmas sales it will probably mean that much less spent in the following January.


SteveFriess
SteveFriess

@therantguy Sure. But that's not how the hive mind of shoppers behave, so it does retailers no good to ignore the realities of the marketplace as it exists.