On the fourth Thursday of November each year, Americans celebrate the time-honored tradition of Thanksgiving.
Most readers will remember the story they were taught in school, but the actual history of this holiday—much like the true meaning of Christmas, a topic for another day perhaps—is a bit deeper and more complicated than popular mythology surrounding Thanksgiving.
Fun Facts of Thanksgiving History
- Historians agree upon the veracity of the "first Thanksgiving" between the Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony and the Wampanoag Indians held in 1621. Yes, there actually was an important English-speaking member of the Wampanoag tribe named Squanto who acted as an interlocutor between the two groups. Although the notion of a feast was part of the ceremony, greater emphasis was placed on the Pilgrims' first decent harvest since arriving in the New World.
- Much of the lesser-known trivia about Thanksgiving involves presidential decrees and attempts to unify a young nation. Even George Washington wanted to codify the idea of an autumn holiday for giving thanks; but in the spirit of federalism, he simply requested that the governor of each state declare such a holiday.
- Abraham Lincoln officially designated the last Thursday of November a national holiday in 1863, seeking to heal the deep psychological and emotional wounds wrought by the Civil War.
- Franklin Roosevelt subsequently changed the date of Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November by executive order. The intent was to create more time for consumers to spend money between Thanksgiving and and Christmas, since Lincoln's formula meant it would sometimes fall on the last day of November. However, many governors resisted the change for political reasons, briefly resulting in different dates (such as November 22nd, 23rd, 24th, or 30th) depending on the state.
- Each year, the U.S. president traditionally "pardons" a turkey in observance of the holiday. For 2018, the decision will be determined by a race between a pair of turkeys affectionately named Carrots and Peas. Wild turkeys can reach speeds of 20 miles per hour!
- Although the tradition of eating turkey on Thanksgiving can (amid some historical debate) be traced back to colonial times, feasting on this particular bird didn't really become a Thanksgiving staple until the mid-19th century. Now, the holiday is synonymous with the title "Turkey Day."
- In some parts of North America, the main course for Thanksgiving dinner is replaced with goose, chicken, or ham. During the original 1621 version (which lasted several days), various stews and seafood dishes were actually more popular, given what foods were available.
- Early colonists could not enjoy many traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. For instance, potatoes and sweet potatoes hadn't been introduced to the continent yet. At the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims lacked the butter and flour needed for baking pies. The first oven wasn't even built in the colonies yet!
- Hall-of-Fame football coach and broadcaster John Madden introduced the tradition of awarding a turkey leg to the most outstanding player in the annual Thanksgiving Day games in the National Football League (NFL). Believe it or not, the practice of scheduling marquee American football games on Thanksgiving actually goes back to the earliest days of professional football in the country.
- The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has been held each year in New York City since 1924. Originally, all the balloons were cut and released at the end of the festivities. A parallel parade has graced the streets of Detroit every year since 1924, as well. The U.S. city with the longest Thanksgiving parade tradition is Philadelphia, which began its annual procession for the holiday in 1920.
The history and trivia herein are provided only for informational and entertainment purposes, and should not be used or construed as an offer, solicitation, or recommendation to buy or sell any turkey or stuffing products.