On the fourth Thursday in November, families across the U.S. gather to feast on turkey, watch football and gear up for Christmas by looking for Santa during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but did you ever wonder why these Thanksgiving traditions started?
Impress your family with these Thanksgiving Day facts:
- The first Thanksgiving was held in the autumn of 1621 and included 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians and lasted three days. Many historians believe that only five women were present at that first Thanksgiving, as many women settlers didn’t survive that difficult first year in the U.S.
- Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until over 200 years later! Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who actually wrote the classic song “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” convinced President Lincoln in 1863 to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, after writing letters for 17 years campaigning for this to happen.
- No turkey on the menu at the first Thanksgiving: Historians say that no turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving! What was on the menu? Deer or venison, ducks, geese, oysters, lobster, eel and fish. They probably ate pumpkins, but no pumpkin pies. They also didn’t eat mashed potatoes or cranberry relish, but they probably ate cranberries. And no, Turduckens (a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken) were nowhere to be found during that first Thanksgiving.
- No forks at the first Thanksgiving!The first Thanksgiving was eaten with spoons and knives — but no forks! That’s right, forks weren’t even introduced to the Pilgrims until 10 years later and weren’t a popular utensil until the 18th century.
- Thanksgiving is the reason for TV dinners! In 1953, Swanson had so much extra turkey (260 tons) that a salesman told them they should package it onto aluminum trays with other sides like sweet potatoes — and the first TV dinner was born!
- Thanksgiving was almost a fast — not a feast! The early settlers gave thanks by praying and abstaining from food, which is what they planned on doing to celebrate their first harvest, that is, until the Wampanoag Indians joined them and (lucky for us!) turned their fast into a three-day feast!
- Presidential pardon of a turkey: Each year, the president of the U.S pardons a turkey and spares it from being eaten for Thanksgiving dinner. The first turkey pardon ceremony started with President Truman in 1947. President Obama pardoned a 45-pound turkey named Courage, who has flown to Disneyland and served as Grand Marshal of the park’s Thanksgiving Day parade!
- Why is Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November? President Abe Lincoln said Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday in November, but in 1939 President Roosevelt moved it up a week hoping it would help the shopping season during the Depression era. It never caught on and it was changed back two years later.
- The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924 with 400 employees marching from Convent Ave to 145th street in New York City. No large balloons were at this parade, as it featured only live animals from Central Park Zoo.
- Turkey isn’t responsible for drowsiness or the dreaded “food coma.” So what is? Scientists say that extra glass of wine, the high-calorie meal or relaxing after a busy work schedule is what makes you drowsy!
- How did the tradition of watching football on Thanksgiving start? The NFL started the Thanksgiving Classic games in 1920 and since then the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys have hosted games on Turkey Day. In 2006, a third game was added with different teams hosting.
- Wild turkeys can run 20 miles per hour when they are scared, but domesticated turkeys that are bred are heavier and can’t run quite that fast.
Thanksgiving trivia quick facts — the speed round!
- Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird, not the eagle.
- Americans eat 46 million turkeys each Thanksgiving.
- Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first meal in space after walking on the moon was foil packets with roasted turkey.
- The heaviest turkey on record, according to the Guinness Book of Records, weighs 86 pounds.
- Californians consume the most turkey in the U.S. on Thanksgiving Day!
- Female turkeys (called hens) do not gobble. Only male turkeys gobble.
- The average turkey for Thanksgiving weighs 15 pounds.
- Campbell’s soup created green bean casserole for an annual cookbook 50 years ago. It now sells $20 million worth of cream of mushroom soup.
It was not what they had planned. In September of 1620, 102 pilgrims embarked from England aboard the Mayflower. Their intent was to establish a settlement in the Hudson River area in the northern reaches of the recently established Virginia Colony. However, after a sixty-six-day journey they made landfall some 150 miles north of their target (whether by design or mishap is unclear) at the eastern tip of Cape Cod in present-day Massachusetts. They explored the area for about a month and then sailed further west to the mainland at present-day Plymouth. It was here that they decided to establish a new homeland.
For the first few months the majority of the expedition remained cloistered aboard ship where many succumbed to mal-nutrition and disease. It is estimated that half of their number died by the following Spring. With the return of favorable weather the remaining adventurers abandoned their ship and moved ashore to establish a settlement in the wilderness. They were aided by two members of the local Native American tribes. To the astonishment of the Pilgrims, both of these Good Samaritans spoke English. One, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, had been kidnapped by English adventurers a few years earlier and taken to England. He was subsequently able to achieve his release and return to his homeland
The Pilgrims’ first corn harvest was successful and in November the group’s leader, Governor William Bradford, called for a feast to celebrate their good fortune. Hunters were sent into the wilderness to hunt game for the event. Members of the local Native American tribes were invited and brought deer meat to add to the menu. The celebration lasted for three days
“…for three days we entertained and feasted.”
Edward Winslow was among the group of Pilgrims present at the first Thanksgiving. He describes the scene:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.
At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, and many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”