The President who dared to tangle with Thanksgiving

(CNN)American norms and traditions have been trampled over the past four years. But even President Donald Trump never dared to mess with Thanksgiving -- unlike his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt, who bit off more than he could chew when he tangled with Turkey Day, 81 years ago.

Thanksgiving used to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November, in line with President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 proclamation of the holiday. But by a trick of the calendar, November 1939 included five Thursdays. And since Americans traditionally didn't think about Christmas until after Thanksgiving, businessmen with the President's ear fretted about losing precious shopping days. So Roosevelt proclaimed that everyone should carve their turkeys a week earlier than usual.
    Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt host Thanksgiving dinner at Warm Springs, GA, November 23, 1939.
    Though history remembers him as a great President who won a never-to-be-repeated four terms, FDR's Thanksgiving hoopla earned him a stuffing from his critics. "Mr Roosevelt reached a new peak of precedent-breaking when he changed the date of our annual Thanksgiving day," wrote William Bruckart of the Western Newspaper Union syndicate. The date flip caused nationwide chaos, especially for college football conferences that had already scheduled games for November 30, expecting huge holiday crowds.
      Some Republican governors refused to play along, meaning whole states ended up on different calendars. And tycoon Alf Landon, who had an ax to grind after losing to Roosevelt in the 1936 election, foreshadowed critiques of Trump by warning the President's impulsiveness caused mass confusion, and accused FDR of "springing" the change on Americans "with the omnipotence of Hitler."
        A Mr. Charles A. Arnold of Arnold's Men's Shop in Brooklyn was also miffed. "We have waited many years for a late Thanksgiving to give us an advantage over the large stores and we are sadly disappointed at your action in this matter," Arnold wrote to the President. And to put an end to such tricks, Congress in 1941 passed a law making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of the month.

        'It's hard to give thanks'

          In a pre-Thanksgiving address on Wednesday, Joe Biden offered heartfelt condolences to grieving Americans this holiday season. "I remember that first Thanksgiving. The empty chair, the silence. Takes your breath away," said the President-elect, who has suffered immense personal tragedy over the years. "It's hard to give thanks. It's hard to even think of looking forward, and it's so hard to hope. I understand."
          "I'll be thinking and praying for each and every one of you at this Thanksgiving," Biden added, urging Americans to "hang on" and to believe that the nation would soon "get our lives back."

          'We will never yield'

          Meanwhile, despite clear guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Americans should not gather for the holidays, Trump's cheery official Thanksgiving statement seemed to bless the potential super-spreader activity. "Although challenges remain, we will never yield in our quest to live up to the promise of our heritage. As we gather with our loved ones, we resolve with abiding faith and patriotism to celebrate the joys of freedom and cherish the hope and peace of a brighter future ahead," he said Wednesday.

          Presidents of Thanksgivings past

          This will be a Thanksgiving like no other. But it's hardly the first such holiday to fall during bleak circumstances — here's how past presidents have sought to cheer and unite the nation during hard times.
          'Heal the wounds of the nation'
          At Thanksgiving 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln asked Americans to commend to God's care "all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."
          'Even amidst the darkness we can see the great blessings'
          During World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson advised Americans to pause for Thanksgiving "even in the midst of the tragedy of a world shaken by war and immeasurable disaster, in the midst of sorrow and great peril, because even amidst the darkness that has gathered about us we can see the great blessings God has bestowed upon us, blessings that are better than mere peace of mind and prosperity of enterprise."
          'Great mercies exact from us the greatest measure of sacrifice and service'
          During World War II in 1943, FDR gave thanks for victories that had made "tyranny tremble" and farmers, who had stored a "heavy harvest in the barns and bins and cellars." "For all these things we are devoutly thankful, knowing also that so great mercies exact from us the greatest measure of sacrifice and service."
          'And we're so very thankful to you'
          In 2001, a few months after the 9/11 attacks that ushered in two decades of war overseas, George W. Bush traveled to Kentucky to share Thanksgiving dinner with US troops. "These have been hard months for Americans," he said. "Yet, this Thanksgiving, we have so much to be thankful for. We're thankful for the love of our families. We're thankful for the goodness and generosity of our fellow citizens. We're thankful for the freedoms of our country. And we're so very thankful to you, the men and women who wear our uniform."


            According to legend, Thanksgiving began with a generous feast shared by Indigenous Americans with colonial European settlers ill-prepared to feed themselves. While there's evidence members that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe did eat together with Pilgrims in 1621, the relationship would eventually lead to the tribe's decimation and loss of land.
            Nearly 400 years later, CNN's Harmeet Kaur reports that their descendants and those of other tribes across the US are fighting to reclaim long-lost territories. Read the full story here -- including how the Wiyot tribe, pictured above and below, successfully won back an ancestral island off the coast of Northern California.