Every year on the fourth Thursday in November, people in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday that revolves around time spent with family and friends – and of course, eating a delicious turkey with all the fixings. Thanksgiving traditions can vary from family to family, but the one thing they all have in common is a desire to express gratitude for the good things in our lives. Many people take a moment before eating their big Thanksgiving dinner to say thank you for their blessings.
The people who love Thanksgiving really love it. They spend the entire month of November preparing for the festivities. They research recipes in cookbooks, at the library, and online. They craft homemade centerpieces and watch cooking shows to learn how to deep fry a turkey or make a turducken.
They debate the merits of cornbread stuffing, shop for items they don’t normally buy (like fresh cranberries), and figure out seating arrangements for family and friends. At school, children indulge in the time-honored tradition of tracing their hands and making the outline into a turkey.
While the basic facts about Thanksgiving – turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and football – are all well known, here are some fun facts that you may not know about this favorite among holidays:
Abraham Lincoln was the president who made Thanksgiving a national holiday back in 1863, when the country was torn in half by the Civil War. He declared it a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise.” A magazine editor by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale played a big role in convincing Lincoln to declare the day a holiday – and she has another well-known accomplishment as well. She is the composer of the famous children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
15 Fun Facts About Thanksgiving
- Turkeys got their name in a rather roundabout way. Before Europeans first landed in the Americas, they grew fond of eating guinea fowls that were imported by Turkish merchants. They called the birds turkeys. When they arrived in the New World, they found birds whose flesh had a similar taste – and so they called them turkeys, too.
- Female turkeys don’t gobble – they cackle. Only male turkeys, which are also known as Toms, make the classic gobbling noise we associate with the birds.
- The wild turkey is native to North America. That makes it a uniquely American choice for the Thanksgiving meal.
- Domesticated turkeys cannot fly, but wild turkeys can. Turkeys also have the ability to run as fast as 20 miles per hour –a surprising fact given their ungainly appearance.
- Despite its popularity today, most historians agree that turkey was not on the menu at the first Thanksgiving, which happened in the fall of 1621. Instead, the settlers and Native Americans feasted on venison, duck, geese, and various kinds of seafood.
- One theory about how turkey became the traditional Thanksgiving meal is that Queen Elizabeth I heard that a fleet of ships from Spain had sunk on their way to launch an attack on England. She ordered a second goose roasted for the evening meal. The story goes that American settlers were inspired by her action, but substituted turkey for goose.
- Every year, the President of the United States pardons a turkey, sparing it from ending up on someone’s dinner table. While President Harry S. Truman is often credited with starting the tradition, he was actually just the first president to receive the gift of a turkey from the official poultry and egg board.
- A surplus of turkeys led to the invention of the first TV dinners. In 1953, food manufacturer Swanson overestimated the number of turkeys it would sell by nearly 26 tons. In an effort not to waste the turkey meat, Swanson came up with the idea of slicing the meat up, packaging it with a few side dishes, and selling it as a meal.
- Americans have been watching football on Thanksgiving since 1920, when the NFL introduced the first Thanksgiving Classic. Today, many high schools and colleges have a Thanksgiving game, usually in the morning so that it doesn’t interfere with Thanksgiving Dinner.
- Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin enjoyed roast turkey as their first meal in space after walking on the moon. The turkey was encased in foil-wrapped packets for safe keeping.
- If it had been up to Benjamin Franklin, our national bird would have been the turkey instead of the bald eagle. He preferred it because it is indigenous to the United States. He famously said that the turkey was a nobler bird than the bald eagle, and he argued passionately for its selection.
- As contrary as this seems, the very first Thanksgiving was almost a fast instead of a feast. The early settlers were religious and austere, and their traditional way of giving thanks was through fasting and prayer. The arrival of the Wampanoag Indians, who came with gifts of food, turned the fast into a feast that lasted for three days – and a tradition was born.
- The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been an annual tradition since 1924. The very first parade was small and featured animals from the Central Park Zoo. The giant balloons didn’t become a part of the parade until 1927, with the introduction of a Felix the Cat balloon. This year’s parade is scheduled to feature a total of 17 giant balloons.
- Another much-loved Thanksgiving viewing tradition involves the National Dog Show. It typically airs right after the parade and is an annual must for many families.
- Some reports suggest that Abraham Lincoln issued the first turkey pardon in 1865. However it started, though, the pardon is now a well-loved annual tradition that usually takes place in the White House Rose Garden. The turkeys are sent to a farm where they can spend the rest of their days running around without fear of ending up on the table.
This year, Thanksgiving falls on Thursday, November 26th. As you enjoy your turkey, be thankful that you’re not spending the day fasting instead of feasting.