When Is (American) Thanksgiving Most Likely To Happen?


Today (the 26th of November) is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. The holiday’s set, by law since 1941, to the fourth Thursday in November. (Before then it was customarily the last Thursday in November, but set by Presidential declaration. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt set the holiday to the third Thursday in November, to extend the 1939 and 1940 Christmas-shopping seasons — a decision Republican Alf Landon characterized as Hitlerian — the fourth Thursday was encoded in law.)

Any know-it-all will tell you, though, how the 13th of the month is very slightly more likely to be a Friday than any other day of the week. This is because the Gregorian calendar has that peculiar century-year leap day rule. It throws off the regular progression of the dates through the week. It takes 400 years for the calendar to start repeating itself. How does this affect the fourth Thursday of November? (A month which, this year, did have a Friday the 13th.)

It turns out, it changes things in subtle ways. Thanksgiving, by the current rule, can be any date between the 22nd and 28th; it’s most likely to be any of the 22nd, 24th, or 26th. (This implies that the 13th of November is equally likely to be a Friday, Wednesday, or Monday, a result that surprises me too.) So here’s how often which date is Thanksgiving. This if we pretend the current United States definition of Thanksgiving will be in force for 400 years unchanged:

November Will Be Thanksgiving
22 58
23 56
24 58
25 56
26 58
27 57
28 57
times in 400 years

I hope this helps your planning, somehow.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

5 thoughts on “When Is (American) Thanksgiving Most Likely To Happen?”

      1. Now there’s a perspective! Perhaps in those days they were more comfortable with the idea of eternity. Reminds me somehow of these musical compositions that take hundreds of years to repeat patterns. Think it must be an artistic stance against mutability and the brevity of life …

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        1. Calendars inspire this kind of thinking, really. Part of it is just trying to match the length of the Earth’s year. The desire to have Easter by its modern definition, though, first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, forces a lot of subtle astronomy and calculation into things. You’re forced to think about big spaces and times just to figure out when Saturday should be.

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