The Gallup Brain: Americans and Thanksgiving

by Julie Ray, Contributing Editor

Thanksgiving provides a kind of national pause as Americans recollect the year's blessings, give thanks, and eat pumpkin pie. Because it's a time of reflection, the editors of the Tuesday Briefing searched Gallup's poll archive -- the Gallup Brain -- for questions that Gallup has asked Americans about this holiday over the years. Our search took us as far back as 1939 and uncovered some interesting trends, and a surprise or two.

1939: The Year of Two Thanksgivings

In 1939, the United States was in the grip of the Great Depression and on the cusp of World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, nearing the end of his second term, faced extreme pressure from business leaders to somehow extend the Christmas shopping season and possibly bolster the abysmal economy. So Roosevelt did the unthinkable -- he moved Thanksgiving. Pushing the holiday up a week from Nov. 30 to Nov. 23 might have seemed like an innocuous decision, but it created unbelievable confusion among Americans -- and the backlash was intense.

Roosevelt's decision disrupted school vacations and football game schedules, and calendar makers were left with a useless inventory of calendars. Some U.S. states decided to ignore the change and celebrate Thanksgiving on Nov. 30 anyway. Still other states, not sure what to do, observed Thanksgiving on both days.

Most Americans were angry that Roosevelt had tinkered with a hallowed American tradition in order to help big business. In August that year, Gallup asked Americans whether they approved or disapproved of Roosevelt's plan to change Thanksgiving. A majority, 59%, said they disapproved, and only 24% approved (17% did not have an opinion). Public opposition was intense and didn't abate after the holidays had passed. Congress responded in 1941 by passing legislation that established one, unmovable Thanksgiving date for the country -- the fourth Thursday of November.

We Gather Together to Count Our Blessings

Over the past 67 years, Gallup has asked Americans six times what they personally are most thankful for around Thanksgiving. "Family" is always high on the list, but it has not always been the most-mentioned response.

When Americans were asked what they, personally, had most to be thankful for, "health" or "good health," were the top responses in 1947, 1954 and 1990. In 1946, the year after World War II, good health was the second-most mentioned after the completely understandable response of "war is over, world at peace." In 1996 and 2000, health remained among the top responses, but general mentions of family nudged it from the top spot. When Americans were asked in 1954, the year after the Korean War, what the people of the United States had to be most thankful for, a majority (56%) said "peace."

Food, Glorious Food

Because food is a central part of almost every Thanksgiving celebration, Gallup asked Americans in 2000 what one food they most look forward to eating on Thanksgiving Day. Turkey, the traditional Thanksgiving gobbler, is the one food that a plurality of Americans (47%) said they most look forward to. Seventeen percent of Americans mentioned stuffing/dressing; mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie each earned mentions from 5%.

In 2000, Gallup also asked Americans whom they would be dining with on Thanksgiving. The vast majority, 86%, said they would be dining with their "family," or gave specific mentions of family members with which they would be sharing the meal. Seven percent say they would be eating the Thanksgiving meal with friends, and just 4% said they would be dining alone.

In that same poll, Gallup also asked Americans where they planned to have Thanksgiving dinner -- at their homes, at the home of other family members or friends, or at a restaurant or other public establishment. About half of Americans (51%) said they would be dining at the home of other family members or friends. Forty percent planned to dine at their own home, and 7% said they planned to eat at a restaurant or some other public establishment.

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