Not-So-Traditional Presidential Thanksgivings

American Icons, History, Seasonal, This Week in History, Traditions, Trivia
on November 20, 2015

presidential thanksgivings

The Eisenhowers and family.

As a national holiday founded upon the consistency of timeless tradition, it only makes sense that Thanksgiving be officiated with yearly ceremonious involvement from the foremost upholders of American tradition themselves. Whether issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation or pardoning one lucky turkey, United States presidents have taken the forefront in preserving the customs of an event dedicated to unity and gratitude. However, as Americans, we all reserve the right to play by our own rules once in awhile—even those of us who commute to the Oval Office for work each day. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite little-known Thanksgiving customs and cameos from presidents past and present that put a unique spin on an otherwise constant trend.

presidential thanksgiving

FDR and family.

The Year We Had Two “Franksgivings”

In 1939, while President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enjoyed all the trappings and community of Thanksgiving from his family estate in Warm Springs, Georgia, much of the American population dwelt turkeyless in their homes, waiting for the following Thursday to celebrate what they deemed the “real” Thanksgiving Day. Why the sudden datebook clash? Much of FDR’s presidency fell during the country’s Great Depression, which particularly damaged the businesses of department store owners who banked (literally) on the holiday season influx to stay afloat. Although Thanksgiving had never received a fixed date, it had been celebrated since its recognition as a federal holiday on the last Thursday of every month—until this year. In an attempt to grant large business owners a little more time between Thanksgiving and Christmas to generate revenue, the president made the executive decision to move the holiday back one week. However, this decision soon backfired immensely, with thousands of complaint letters pouring into the White House, and some state officials even declaring the change moot, celebrating the holiday on the original date. In protest, many began referring to the errant holiday as “Franksgiving.” Needless to say, this controversial scheduling, which resulted in many families not being able to celebrate together due to date conflicts between states, only lasted for two more years before Thanksgiving was officially recognized by law in 1941 as the fourth Thursday in November.

The Eight-Year Jeffersonian Drought

Back in the early presidential days, before Thanksgiving became a federal holiday, each president had to re-declare the celebration each year to keep the tradition going from Washington’s term. However, an official national celebration of giving thanks took a two-term hiatus when Thomas Jefferson stepped up to bat, as he was vehemently against the holiday. He refused to acknowledge it during his presidency, reportedly calling it “the most ridiculous idea ever conceived.” While it’s hard to believe a United States president could be so opposed to a lighthearted holiday, many have speculated that his resentment came from the deep-rooted belief in the separation of church and state, indicating that the Thanksgiving prayer ritual seemed to be in direct violation of this imperative.

The Advent of an Official Thanksgiving Holiday and the Surprising Individual Who Pioneered the Change

If you grew up listening to nursery rhymes and childhood songs, you’ve probably got the tune and lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” ingrained permanently in your memory. What most people don’t realize is that we’ve got the same woman who wrote the childhood staple to thank for another major life tradition. After writing to government officials for 17 years protesting for the recognition of a formal holiday, Sarah Josepha Hale was met with a positive response from Abraham Lincoln, who officiated the occasion in 1863—more than 200 years after the tradition began.

presidential thanksgiving

Ronald and Nancy Reagan, with their daughter Maureen, celebrate Thanksgiving at their Santa Barbara ranch in 1985.

The Less-Than-Traditional Culinary Traditions of Certain National Leaders

While many waves of White House cooking staff would probably claim they never cooked anything other than the traditional trappings for their presidential families, there are some notable exceptions to this rule. William Howard Taft, for example, gave his tabletop turkey a run for its money by serving up roasted possums straight from the heart of Georgia, complete with decorative potatoes in each of their mouths. Bill Clinton, remaining loyal to his southern heritage, insisted on having cherry coke salad (a cola-filled gelatin substance) brought to the table each year, while Ronald Reagan’s palette craved a heaping helping of gooey monkey bread to outshine the pumpkin pie.

presidential thanksgiving

President Obama and daughters pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey.

The Year the First Family Actually Celebrated Thanksgiving at the White House

It’s not hard to believe that after months and months of being concealed within the White House walls, many presidents and their families opt to escape the executive estate in favor of family homes located elsewhere. But not the Obamas—they’ve celebrated Thanksgiving in the White House each year since President Obama’s term began, the first to use it for this purpose since Gerald Ford’s presidency. What’s more, President Obama believes in going all in for his dessert spread—which boasts six different kinds of pies each year.