26 Amazing Things You Probably Don't Know About Thanksgiving History

This Thanksgiving trivia will leave you feeling stuffed with knowledge.

You may think you know everything there is to know about Thanksgiving. Sure, it seems pretty simple: To commemorate a big feast shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, we gather with our friends and family on the fourth Thursday of November to eat way too much turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, try not to talk about politics, and maybe watch a little football. And that's that, right? Well, not exactly. Thanksgiving is a holiday with a complicated, fascinating backstory. Here are 26 facts about Thanksgiving history that may surprise you!

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a fast, not a feast.

Plymouth, Massachusetts thanksgiving facts

As history professor Ken Albala explained in the San Francisco Chronicle, a "thanksgiving" was a practice with far different intentions and traditions than the gluttonous feast we associate with the holiday today. In fact, the event we point to as the first Thanksgiving wasn't even called as such. An actual thanksgiving was an occasion for the Pilgrims—specifically, the more pious Puritans amongst them—to gather in a communal day of fasting and meditation, to give thanks for a bountiful harvest, and reflect on how to improve upon their shortcomings as individuals.

Fasting and meditating sounds like a slightly different approach than eating your weight in turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.

The Pilgrims didn't have forks.

Forks in drawer

Here's something to give thanks for this Thanksgiving: You've got access to helpful cutlery like forks. Can you imagine trying to eat your entire Thanksgiving meal with a spoon? Sounds rough! But knives and spoons were all the pilgrims had to work with when they sat down for that first Thanksgiving dinner. (That may explain why turkey wasn't on the menu.)

The original Thanksgiving lasted three days.

map of plymouth massachusetts

That first celebration in 1621 in Plymouth, Mass. had close to 150 attendees, according to Edward Winslow, who was one of them. "For three days we entertained and feasted," he wrote.

Canada's Thanksgiving (maybe) came first.

canada day

According to CNN, Canada was host to the actual first Thanksgiving. The claim in question refers to the arrival of English explorer Martin Frobisher and his crew to our neighbor to the north in 1578. Happy to be on dry land, they celebrated with a feast of beef, mushy peas, and crackers. Whether or not it was called Thanksgiving, however, is still up for debate.

The first Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade had live animals instead of balloons.

macy's parade thanksgiving facts

When it began in 1924, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade didn't have the gigantic balloons that we all know and love today. Instead, they paraded live animals through the streets of New York. Not small ones either—we're talking elephants and tigers, all on loan from the Central Park Zoo. The balloons didn't arrive until a few years later.

Felix the Cat was the very first one, at the fourth-annual parade held in 1927. And back in those early days, the balloons didn't have long shelf lives. Because there was no deflation procedure, the balloons were simply released into the air and could be returned to Macy's for a monetary reward.

Westminster Abbey hosted Thanksgiving for U.S. Troops during World War II.

kate had trees for the ceremony in the church

In 1942, the United Kingdom joined in the festivities when it hosted Thanksgiving services at Westminster Abbey for U.S. troops stationed in England during World War II. It was the first time in its 900-year history that a foreign army was invited inside the storied cathedral, drawing more than 3,500 soldiers who gathered in the pews and sang patriotic anthems "America the Beautiful" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Even astronauts celebrate Thanksgiving in space.

NASA building out front, NASA everyday items

Unlike the rest of us, astronauts "don't actually have the day off on Thursday," as NASA spokesman Dan Huot told Space.com. But at least aboard the International Space Station, they do get a big meal in space that includes turkey, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, and desserts.

There are three U.S. towns named Turkey.

Turkey, Texas thanksgiving facts

We're not sure what Thanksgiving is like in Turkey, Texas; Turkey, North Carolina; or Turkey Creek, Louisiana, but we can only assume they're legendary. With around 500 residents in each of these small towns, it might even be just one big party with everybody invited. (At least, that's what it's like in our imaginations.)

No one is entirely sure which president pardoned a turkey first.

turkey craziest emotional support animal

Some historians think it started with Abraham Lincoln, who pardoned a turkey intended for dinner when his son Tad "interceded in behalf of its life," a White House reporter wrote. "[Tad's] plea was admitted and the turkey's life spared." Others believe it began with President Harry Truman in the '40s, but the official White House website dismisses this as a tale spread by "mythmakers," and some believe John F. Kennedy pardoned a turkey (who happened to be wearing a sign around its neck that read "Good Eatin' Mr. President") just days before his assassination.

But the credit really belongs to George H. W. Bush, who began the practice in earnest in 1989. According to the National Turkey Federation, which raises birds for the presidential pardon ceremony, the average turkey doesn't have an exceptionally long life, and can expect to live only an additional two or three years even if given a reprieve by the president.

Science says men are turned on by the smell of pumpkin pie.

pumpkin pie thanksgiving facts

Fair warning, the following information may change how you feel about pumpkin pie: The aroma of the go-to Thanksgiving dessert has been shown to increase arousal in men, according to research by the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. In the study conducted in 1995, participants were exposed to 46 different odors and scents and 40 percent experienced an increase in arousal when they smelled pumpkin pie. As the center's neurological director Dr. Alan Hirsch said in an interview, "It gives new meaning to the phrase, 'a way to a man's heart is through his stomach,' or maybe more through his nose."

The average American eats around 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving.

thanksgiving food - funniest jokes

According to the Calorie Control Council, the average American may consume more than 4,500 calories and 229 grams of fat on Thanksgiving day. As for what it would require to burn off all those calories, you're looking at 15 hours of cycling, a 10.3-hour hike, or 20-plus hours of uninterrupted bowling practice.

Americans eat 80 million pounds of cranberries around Thanksgiving.

cranberries fruit berries

Each year Americans gulp back 400 million pounds of the small red berries, and 20 percent of those—a staggering 80 million pounds—are consumed the week of Thanksgiving. And further proving our nation's love for tart side dish, more than 5 million gallons of jellied cranberry sauce are consumed by Americans every holiday season.

We eat 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving.

color head of turkey

Unless you're the one lucky gobbler to get a presidential pardon this year, Thanksgiving is a frightening time to be a turkey. According to the National Turkey Federation, 46 million turkeys are expected to be eaten on Thanksgiving, and another 22 million on Christmas.

People in Israel eat the most turkey.

Stuffed turkey with stuffing/dressing for thanksgiving or christmas

U.S. citizens aren't slackers when it comes to shoving turkey down our gullets, with an impressive 104.9 pounds consumed per person every year, according to 2015 data from U.S. News and World Report. But that number pales in comparison to Israel, where the average citizen enjoys a staggering 127.2 pounds of poultry annually.

The world record for turkey carving is just over three minutes.

turkey food for your brain

Three minutes and 19.47 seconds, to be exact, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. And here's the kicker, the record is held by someone who doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving. The U.K.'s Paul Kelly has turkey-prep skills that don't stop at carving either—the Essex native also holds the record for plucking turkeys, de-feathering a trio of birds in 11 minutes and 30.16 seconds.

It's more the carbs than the turkey making you sleepy on Thanksgiving.

girl napping on the couch

The tryptophan in turkey gets all the blame for people's post-Thanksgiving grogginess. But turkey doesn't really have more tryptophan than any other poultry. And while tryptophan can in fact cause sleepiness, it certainly isn't the only culprit in your overwhelming need to nap after your holiday feast. The real reason why you can't keep your eyes open is the motherlode of carbs and calories you've just consumed. And if you topped it off with a glass or two of wine, well, then consider the mystery solved.

Thanksgiving eve is the biggest drinking night of the year.

liquor store Never Buy

There is no other occasion that has bartenders nationwide pouring more drinks than they do on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. The aptly nicknamed Drinksgiving—yes, there's even a movie about it—brings an 167-percent increase in alcohol sales compared to a typical Wednesday night, according to consulting firm Womply.

Some Thanksgiving shoppers might be a little drunk.

black friday

A 2017 survey conducted by RetailMeNot.com found that roughly 12 percent of shoppers during the Thanksgiving rush are S.U.I.—shopping under the influence. And even if they haven't been tossing a few back, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are operating at full capacity. In the same survey, a quarter of Americans admitted that they are "sleep deprived" while shopping during the four-day weekend. Shop at your own risk, people!

The day after Thanksgiving is prime time for plumbers.

open toilet, old fashioned cleaning tips

According to plumbing company Roto-Rooter, post-Thanksgiving day business is always booming. Every year, on what has been given the unfortunate nickname "Brown Friday," the company sees a 50-percent increase in service calls, on average, and a 21-percent increase in overall business compared with other holiday weekends during the year.

The Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving every year since 1934.


Football games on Thanksgiving can be traced as far back as 1876, but few teams have played as faithfully as the Detroit Lions. It began in 1934, when the Lions took on the Chicago Bears in front of a record crowd of 26,000 football fans. The Lions lost 19–16, but a new tradition was born. They've played on every Thanksgiving ever since, except for a six-year hiatus during World War II.

FDR once tried—and partly succeeded—to change when Thanksgiving was celebrated.

fdr memorial washington dc

Believe it or not, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to move Thanksgiving. Falling on Nov. 30 that year, and worried Americans wouldn't have ample time for Christmas shopping, Roosevelt announced he was moving Thanksgiving one week earlier. The decision was met with substantial ridicule, particularly from Republicans, who took to calling the new holiday "Franksgiving." But not everyone resisted. For that one year, 22 states went along with the change, 24 stuck to the original date or were undecided, and two—Texas and Colorado—observed both holidays.

Nearly 80 percent of people think leftovers are the best part of hosting Thanksgiving.

leftovers in tupperware

A Thanksgiving feast is delicious and all, but it doesn't begin to compare with leftovers—at least according to a 2015 Harris Poll, which found that 79 percent of people think eating leftovers is the best part of hosting Thanksgiving dinner.

The invention of the TV dinner was the result of Thanksgiving leftovers.

turkey tv dinner in tray

Corporations, just like people, can have eyes bigger than their stomachs when it comes to Thanksgiving food. In fact, that's the reason we have the TV dinner, a once ubiquitous staple in suburban homes across the country during the the 1950s and decades thereafter.

In 1953, as a result of an ordering miscalculation, food industry giant Swanson had a post-holiday surplus of 260 tons of frozen turkeys. Rather than throw it all out and take the loss, Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas came up with what ultimately proved to be a highly lucrative solution. Inspired by the pre-pared meals served by airlines, he ordered 5,000 aluminum trays and organized an assembly line of employees to fill them with turkey, peas, cornbread, and sweet potatoes. And, just like that, the TV dinner was born!

"Jingle Bells" was written by J.P. Morgan's uncle and was originally a Thanksgiving song.

jingle bells on silver background

If you're the type of person who gets annoyed by Christmas songs being played before December, you might have to make an exception when it comes to "Jingle Bells." The timeless ditty, composed by James Pierpont in 1857, was originally titled "One Horse Open Sleigh" and it was written for Thanksgiving. The song became popular with both kids and adults and, in 1859, it was reprinted, renamed, and rebranded for Christmas.

However, despite becoming one the holiday's biggest hits, the tune didn't make Pierpont a rich man. Even though he was the uncle of John Pierpont Morgan—yes, that J.P. Morgan—and penned the first song to be heard from space, he struggled to make ends meet until his death.

The writer of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" helped make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

sarah hale portrait
Library of Congress

For most of the 1800s, Thanksgiving was only celebrated in the northeast, which for writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, just wouldn't do. In 1846, Hale, who also wrote a little nursery rhyme you may have heard of called "Mary Had a Little Lamb," began a tireless—and enduring—pursuit to reinstate Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Her impassioned letters to President Abraham Lincoln and others in positions of power finally paid off when Lincoln made a formal proclamation on Oct. 3, 1863, declaring Thanksgiving an official U.S. holiday.

You can call the Butterball turkey hotline with cooking questions.

butterball frozen turkey

Cooking a turkey on Thanksgiving can be a harrowing experience, but you don't have to go it alone. There's a real turkey talk-line, 1-800-BUTTERBALL, where culinary experts are available 24/7 to help with all your turkey questions or emergencies. Thirty-five years ago, when it first launched, the hotline was taking an average of 11,000 calls during the Thanksgiving season. That number has jumped to well over 100,000 calls in recent years.

Filed Under