Moving Thanksgiving Just Might Save the Economy

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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.

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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.”

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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.