Geek Trivia: Early bird special

Which U.S. president wanted to reschedule Thanksgiving to accommodate Christmas shopping?

Americans are mere hours away from one of the most hallowed and acclaimed days ever recognized and celebrated within the United States. Dating back generations, it's a tradition that has affected not just the idle hours of grateful and reveling Americans, but it's also had a profound impact on both the national culture and the national economy.

We speak, of course, of Black Friday. (What—you were expecting Thanksgiving?) The Friday after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday has long marked the official opening of the Christmas shopping season, affording consumers roughly a full month to amass the hordes of presents that they exchange in that uniquely capitalist interpretation of the annual season of giving.

Retailers dubbed the day after Thanksgiving Black Friday in acknowledgement of the holiday shopping rush that finally pushes stores' balance sheets from red ink (for year-to-date losses) into the black (for year-to-date profits). Any more negative connotations of Black Friday—like, say, a reaction to the brutal overworking of retail clerks, shelf-stockers, and cashiers by endless throngs of maddening, holiday-stressed, bargain-crazed customers—are strictly ironic in nature.

That said, the conventional wisdom that Black Friday is the largest or most profitable shopping day of the year—for North American retailers, at least—is largely overblown. Figures vary from year to year and source to source, but one consistent trend continues: Black Friday is usually the fifth biggest shopping day of the year, not the first.

The number of shoppers in stores (i.e., floor traffic) is probably highest on Black Friday—though such figures aren't the easiest to track. However, the two weekends before Christmas typically represent the first through fourth biggest shopping days of the year, as measured by volume of sales.

Sales volume typically spikes on Black Friday, then plummets back down the following Monday. The sales trend then ramps back up as Christmas approaches, with the two Saturdays and two Sundays nearest to but before Christmas eventually overtaking Black Friday in sales volume. (December 23 is always a good bet to be near the top as well.) The last-minute shopper is a statistical—and economically powerful—reality.

Despite Black Friday's somewhat overstated reputation, one U.S. president so respected the economic power wielded by the Christmas shopping season that he tried to extend it a week—by rescheduling Thanksgiving.


Which U.S. president tried to reschedule the national Thanksgiving holiday in an effort to extend the Christmas shopping season?

In August 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put forth a measure to move the national Thanksgiving holiday to the next-to-last Thursday in November—rather than the last Thursday of the month, which was then the traditional date for Thanksgiving. FDR reasoned that moving Black Friday ahead by seven days—and therefore creating an extra week for the Christmas shopping season—would help retailers weather the still-painful effects of the Great Depression.

Now, before we lambaste the late president for such a ham-handed tactic, keep in mind that in the 1930s, most considered it inappropriate to advertise Christmas sales or put out Christmas decorations until the day after Thanksgiving. The only "polite" way to goose Christmas-related spending was to formally extend the Christmas season, and FDR was willing to give it a try.

Not surprisingly, the general public failed to universally embrace the measure, and FDR stopped short of making the change mandatory. As such, 23 states recognized the earlier Thanksgiving holiday, 22 did not, and a few states went so far as to recognize both dates, effectively having Thanksgiving twice (a measure the Trivia Geek heartily endorses).

Still, FDR took a mild ribbing in the public consciousness, with many referring to the earlier Thanksgiving date as Franksgiving. Also, the tactic did not significantly mitigate the Depression, as many an economist will tell you.

As we've already learned, the two weekends before Christmas are the real money-makers, and moving Black Friday does nothing to sway procrastinating gift buyers or Trivia Geeks. (Hey, you can find great deals at 4 P.M. on Christmas Eve—so long as you aren't picky about sizes or appropriateness!)

FDR retried Franksgiving in 1940, with similarly ambiguous results. In 1941, Congress passed a measure officially scheduling Thanksgiving for the fourth Thursday in November, and FDR signed it into law on November 26 of that year. (You may not have heard about it, what with all the press coverage of a certain Day of Infamy 11 days later.)

Sometimes the fourth Friday is the last Friday in November, and sometimes it's the second-to-last, effectively splitting the difference between Franksgiving and Thanksgiving. That may make for fewer double-dip holidays, but it's still good for some gravy-dipped Geek Trivia.

Check out the Trivia Geek's blog!

Keep in touch with Trivial Pursuits, the Trivia Geek's online journal of rants, opinions, crazy ideas, half-baked notions, bizarre concepts, wild schemes, and trivial observations unfit even for Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the November 9 edition of Geek Trivia, "Before the age of the Dyna-Soar." Once again, I left out a critical detail that TechRepublic member Sterling was keen to point out.

"Though not a technical inaccuracy, I was a bit disappointed that you omitted any mention of the Messerschmitt Me163, the only operational rocket airplane of WWII. I suppose it was a victim of space constraints (pun intended)."

If only there were room enough for every tangent and ancillary detail, dear readers, but alas, my editor knows where I live. Thanks for the contribution, and keep those quibbles coming!

Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?

Check out the Geek Trivia Archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic's Geek Trivia newsletter. Automatically sign up today!

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.