10 Things You Didn’t Know About Thanksgiving

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Thanksgiving

Here’s a helping of Turkey Day trivia to bestow upon your tablemates this holiday season alongside second servings of mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. Whether you need to fill an awkward pause, defuse a squabble, or you just want to flex your knowledge, there’s at least one thing on this list that’ll get the conversation flowing.

Pilgrims weren’t the first.

It sounds like heresy, but the 1621 celebration was preceded by many others on our soil. Here are just a few:

Texas, 1541: Explorer Francisco

Vasquez de Coronado held “a day for prayer and feasting” with his crew in Palo Duro Canyon.

Virginia, 1610: After the winter of 1609-1610, only 60 of the original 490 Jamestown settlers were alive. After English ships delivered more food, those 60 held a Thanksgiving prayer service.

Virginia, 1619: On December 4, a band of 38 colonists declared that the date “shall be yearly and perpetually kept as a day of Thanksgiving.’’

Bar sales go through the roof on Thanksgiving Eve.

Forget St. Patrick’s Day and the Super Bowl. Not even New Year’s Eve comes close. It makes sense—it’s a near-universal holiday, so practically everyone’s off the next day; loads of out-of-towners can catch up with old friends before tucking into the big family meal; and who really wants to entertain anyone the night before, anyway?

Plus, if you’re not feeling 100 percent on Thursday, it’ll be okay to snooze a bit afterward—everyone else will be entering a food coma too!

Macy’s was not the original Thanksgiving Day parade.

That distinction goes to the 1920 parade organized by Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia. About 50 people were involved.

Macy’s parade launched in 1924, with 400 marching employees and a menagerie of live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.

Those huge balloons debuted in 1927, with Felix the Cat; Mickey Mouse joined the festivities in 1934. And Snoopy’s been featured a half-dozen times, more than any other character.

Edmund Gwenn really was Santa.

The parade scenes in the original Miracle on 34th Street were shot on location, and had to be completed before the marchers stepped off. (Except for Edmund Gwenn, who played Kris Kringle, because he actually served as Santa in the entire Macy’s parade that year.)

Sarah Josepha Hale got the Thanksgiving ball rolling.

Sarah Hale (1788-1879) was a bit of a pot-stirrer in her time. Her then-radical ideas included having female public school teachers, providing working mothers with daycare, and establishing public playgrounds.

Sarah also wrote letter after letter—for 17 years!—to numerous public figures, even President Lincoln, lobbying for a national day of Thanksgiving. In 1863, her labors bore fruit: Lincoln issued that proclamation on October 3 of that year.

But she had other accomplishments. Sarah was the “editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a novelist, and poet. Her best-known poem begins, “Mary had a little lamb…”

“Thanksgiving” or “Franksgiving”?

Between 1939 and 1941, Americans could celebrate either of two Thanksgivings (or both).

In an effort to boost retailers’ bottom lines, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed in August 1939 that Thanksgiving would fall a full week earlier than it traditionally did.

The country went nuts.

Some states observed the new date; others kept to the old one. Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas celebrated both. Preference for each date broke roughly along party lines, so they became known as the Republican Thanksgiving and the Democratic Thanksgiving (or, as Atlantic City’s mayor dubbed it, “Franksgiving”).

The matter was settled in ’41, when Roosevelt signed a law, declaring the fourth Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day.

No one has messed with the date since.

The History of TV Dinners

In 1953, C.A. Swanson and Sons grossly overestimated its Thanksgiving sales, and was stuck with a half-million pounds of turkey.

Salesman Gerry Thomas suggested turning them into frozen, pre-made meals packed in segmented aluminum trays. Lo and behold! The very first TV dinner. It contained sliced turkey, cornbread stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, and peas. They cost less than a buck each, and went from freezer to table in 25 minutes.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Let’s sing “Jingle Bells.”

J.L. Pierpont wrote “One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857, reportedly for a Sunday school choir’s Thanksgiving program. (It became “Jingle Bells” when Pierpont
re-published the song in 1859.)

The kids were asked to sing it again at Christmas, and it’s been tied to that holiday ever since. The Edison Male Quartette recorded it in 1898, and it became a standard when Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters made it swing in 1943.

Alternative Holidays

“Unthanksgiving Day,” also known as the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, honors Native Americans with a sunrise ceremony, tribal dances, celebrations of culture and heritage, and other events.

Although Virgin Islanders celebrate the usual Thanksgiving, they also mark “Hurricane Day” on October 19 if the islands weren’t ravaged by hurricanes
that year.

Native Hawaiians held the biggest Thanksgiving ever, long before the pilgrims landed. “Makahiki,” which historically celebrated the end of the harvest season and the new year, ran four full months. Work and war were forbidden, and natives spent their time dancing, playing sports, and partying. In modern day, mainland Thanksgiving is celebrated—but many islanders steam their turkeys underground in an imu instead of roasting them.

Lions and Bears (oh my!)

In 1934, George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans football team for $7,952.08 (yes, and eight cents!) and moved the team to Detroit. He needed something to spark interest in the renamed team; their 26,000-seat stadium at the University of Detroit was rarely more than half-full.

Richards scheduled the 10-1 Lions to take on the undefeated World Champion Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day. As owner of WJR radio, he also convinced the NBC network to broadcast the game nationwide. The dream match-up was an instant hit: the stadium sold out, and fans were turned away at the gate.

And that’s how the tradition of Lions’ football on Thanksgiving got started.

Photo: Scott Cornell / Shutterstock.com

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