Thanksgiving means a lot of conversation time, but rather than bring up politics, we’ve complied a list of fun facts, some spectacular jokes, and some tasty historical treats to help keep that conversation moving. Here are 20 Thanksgiving facts to help steer that conversation far away from topics that make dinner awkward for everyone.
1.) 35 million people can trace their lineage back to the pilgrims.
Via Wikimedia commons
Though half of the original settlers perished during the harsh New England winter, an estimated 35 million people can trace their family lineage back to the 51 surviving members of the Plymouth Rock pilgrims. Several prominent figures can trace their lineage back 12 to 16 generations to find pilgrim ancestors including:
Clint Eastwood and Hugh Hefner are both descendants of Governor William Bradford, the man who coined the word “pilgrim.”
Alec Baldwin and Christopher Lloyd are both descendants of indentured servant, John Howland.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Orson Welles were both descendants of Richard Warren, who was part of the first group of Pilgrims to encounter the Native Americans.
Bing Crosby’s distant grandfather was William Brewster, the settlement’s spiritual advisor and the only college educated person on the Mayflower.
2.) Thomas Jefferson was the Grinch of Thanksgiving
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale
Before the holiday was made official, it was up to the president to decide what day the event would fall. Thomas Jefferson refused to participate. He felt that the tradition was too rooted in the Pilgrim’s Puritan beliefs, and violated the separation of church and state. However, we’d like to note that many Indigenous traditions celebrated the harvest between October and November long before the Puritans bogarted the holiday.
3.) The writer of “Mary had a Little Lamb” is the “Mother of Thanksgiving”
Sarah Hale by James Lambdin, Sarah Hale’s letter to Abraham Lincoln
Writer and Suffragette Sarah Josepha Hale was the driving factor behind the Thanksgiving holiday. Days for giving thanks were common, and presidents from Washington to Lincoln regularly called for holidays to give thanks for victories during wartime. She petitioned several presidents to formalize turkey day as a holiday, before Lincoln finally agreed.
4.) Abraham Lincoln made the holiday official
Via Wikimedia commons
Alsmot 200 years after the first Thanksgiving feast, Abraham Lincoln made the holiday official. In 1863, during the midst of the Civil War, the holiday marked a time for merriment and reflection. The war was hard on civilians, and Lincoln specifically requested that his constituents took time to be thankful for all they had, and remembered to think of the “widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife which we are unavoidably engaged…”
5.) President Roosevelt tried to change the date
In 1939, President Roosevelt tried to shift Thanksgiving from the 4th Thursday to the 3rd. He hoped that adding a week to the Christmas season would encourage the economy (which was in the slumps after the Great Depression). The announcement was made in August, and immediately Americans were furious. Come November, most civilians refused to acquiesce to the change. Roosevelt tried for two years before finally giving up in 1941.
For his transgressions against the holiday, Roosevelt was even compared to Hitler.
6.) Calvin Coolidge was almost served a raccoon for Thanksgiving
The 20th president of the United States was gifted a raccoon for his 1926 Thanksgiving dinner. Coolidge tried to convince numerous farmers not to gift his family a Thanksgiving dinner, and rather than heed the president’s wishes, the gifts got more and more outlandish. When Coolidge was given a raccoon, he had zero desire to eat the wee beastie. Instead, he and his wife decided to keep her. Rebecca the raccoon remained at the White House until 1929, before she was donated to what is now the National Zoo in Washington, DC.
7.) Canada’s thanksgiving is a month before the U.S.’s
Our great neighbors to the north celebrate Thanksgiving in October. Canada’s festival was made official in 1879, and overlaps with the British and continental European harvest festival. It wasn’t decided until 1957 that the holiday would fall on the second Monday of October.
Despite Canada declaring the tradition annual after their American neighbors, historians think the first Canadian Thanksgiving came in 1579.
8.) Only one island in Australia celebrates Thanksgiving
Norfolk Island just off of Australia celebrates American Thanksgiving. American Whaling ships frequently called the island’s harbor home. They brought the holiday with them — traditional foods and all — during the late 1800s and still throw an annual Thanksgiving feast to this day.
9.)Turkeys suffer from a case of mistaken identity
Turkeys are named for the country of Turkey, though they didn’t originate there – most historians agree that modern domesticated turkeys likely descended from Mexican wild turkeys. Instead the problem lies with the Guinea fowl, an Eastern African bird that was traded to Europeans through the Turks. Turkey (the country) translates to “the land of Turks,” so anything that came from turkey usually included the name;the Guinea fowl was called a “turkey-cock” or a “turkey-hen.” When the first Europeans arrived in the Americas, they assumed turkeys were the same birds and the rest is history.
10.) Gifting a turkey was seen as a symbol of good cheer.
It’s been a tradition to gift turkeys for hundreds of years in America. American presidents started receiving the big birds as gifts as early as the 1870s. The first bird was gifted to President Ulysses S Grant was in office, but the 18th president wasn’t the first to sling a pardon the bird’s way.
11.) The turkey pardon isn’t very consistent.
The presidential turkey pardon is a relatively new tradition. George H.W. Bush formalized the annual pardon in 1989. Before H.W. Bush made it official, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan were the only other presidents to pluck the birds from harm’s way. First ladies Thelma “Pat” Nixon and Rosalynn Carter also opted to set their turkey free.
12.) Benjamin Franklin loved turkeys
Benjamin Franklin Via PBS
ScreenGrab Via Youtube
Benjamin Franklin was a huge proponent for the merits of turkeys. He wrote his daughter to say that he wished the Bald Eagle had never been chosen to represent America since the Turkey was, “in comparison a much more respectable bird.”
13.) The pilgrims likely didn’t eat any turkey
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914 wikimedia commons
Historians haven’t found any evidence that turkey was the key component of the first Thanksgiving feast. Instead, the meal was likely mostly fruits like gooseberries, raspberries, blueberries, and other easily foraged items, and vegetables like corn, beans, squash, and cabbage grown in shared plots. The Wampanoag people brought several deer to the occasion and were skilled at gathering shellfish. The dinner wasn’t entirely without a fowl-based dish, the original feast might have included ducks, geese, and swans.
14.) Turkey doesn’t actually make you tired
Contrary to the popular myth, Tryptophan doesn’t actually increase drowsiness. Scientists say that the real reason we feel drowsy after Thanksgiving is the sheer volume of food, it’s called “Postprandial Fatigue.” It’s hardly surprising that most of us just want to curl up and take a nap after dinner. The average American east between 3,000 and 4,500 calories for the feast.
15.) About 16 million turkeys are cooked each year
Despite nearly 70% of American’s saying they dislike turkey, plenty of birds get served up each year. More than 30% of American’s serve something alongside the turkey on the big day, but traditions are hard to kill. Altering traditions is seen as morally reprehensible, just ask President Roosevelt.
16.) A Thanksgiving mistake led to the invention of the T.V. dinner
In 1953, some hapless Swanson employee over ordered turkey – by about 260 tons! Sales man Gerry Thomas had the bright idea to serve the birds Airplane style. Carved turkey was packaged with peas, cornbread dressing, gravy, and sweet potatoes. The aluminum trays were sold for 98 cents, and in the first year of production the company sold 10 million turkey dinners.
17.) The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade used to be the Christmas Parade
Macy’s annual parade used to be centered around the start of the Christmas season. The first parade in 1924 used animals from the Central Park Zoo rather than giant balloons. Onlookers were treated to lions, bears, elephants, donkeys, monkeys, and camels alongside Macy’s employees. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade might be the most famous, but it’s certainly not the oldest.
18.) Thanksgiving and Football go way back
The Germantown Cricket Club in 1891
The first football/Thanksgiving overlap happened at the collegiate level and happened around the same time Lincoln made the holiday official. Six years after the date was made official, the Young America Cricket Club went toe to toe with the Germantown Cricket Club. The match was played 2 weeks after Rutgers University defeated Princeton University in what is believed to be the first-ever football match.
In 1876, Princeton and Yale started a five-year long tradition of clashing on Thanksgiving Day. In 1882, the playful matches were officially integrated into the Intercollegiate Football Associations yearly schedule.
19.) The first NFL game was held in 1934
The first NFL game was held in Detroit in 1934 between Lions and the Chicago Bears. The more was risky, but two-weeks before the game all 26,00 tickets were sold out. Some estimates say that another 25,000 would have come if the stadium had allowed it.
12.) Football isn’t the only Thanksgiving holiday.
The sport of Turkey Bowling has been going since the late 80s. The game involves rolling a frozen turkey down a slick lane and into liquid filled plastic drink bottles. The odd game has come under fire multiple times from animal rights groups for being, “disrespectful to the animals.”