30 Amazing Things You Never Knew About Thanksgiving
It's more than just turkey and football, folks.
Thanksgiving doesn’t feel like a holiday filled with a lot of mystery. It’s pretty simple, really: To commemorate a big feast shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, we invite over friends and family during the last Thursday in late November and eat way too much turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce and try not to talk about politics and watch a lot of football. What else is there, right?
Well, you’d be surprised. There’s so much more than meets the eye in this annual tradition. It’s a holiday with a complicated (and often hilarious) history and more plot twists than a spy novel. Here are 30 strange but true facts about Thanksgiving that will blow your mind.
Thanksgiving was created as a day of fasting, not eating.
The first Thanksgiving, as observed by the devout settlers at Plymouth Rock, wasn’t anything like the gluttonous harvest feast we celebrate today. The Pilgrims and Puritans intended it as a communal day of fasting and meditation, to reflect on the bounty that God had provided and examine their own faults.
Eating meat and dairy, as some historians have explained, was thought to “generate a plethora of blood and sperm (in both men and women), which would in turn stimulate the libido and lead to sin.” By stuffing our faces with turkey, we’re actually doing the exact opposite of what the Pilgrims wanted. Whoops!
The average Thanksgiving meal is about 4,500 calories.
At least according to the Calorie Control Council, and that number is downright shocking. Even more unnerving is how much exercise you’d have to do to burn off those thousands of calories. It’s been estimated that you’d need to cycle for 15 hours, hike for 10.3 hours, or bowl for an unbelievable 20.6 hours to recover from the caloric carnage of just one Thanksgiving feast.
FDR tried (and failed) to change when it was celebrated.
Believe it or not, President Franklin D. Roosevelt once thought Americans didn’t have enough time for Christmas shopping. So to remedy this, he made a proclamation in 1939, pushing Thanksgiving back one week earlier so his countrymen would have an extra week to be annoyed by Christmas songs. It was, of course, ridiculous, and the country predictably revolted, dubbing the new holiday “Franksgiving.” Two years later, Congress adopted a Thanksgiving resolution, officially declaring the fourth Thursday of November as the holiday’s one and only date.
Thanksgiving leftovers led to the invention of the first TV dinner.
Leave it to a company like Swanson to grossly overestimate how much turkey Americans were planning to consume on Thanksgiving. In 1953, they were stuck with a post-holiday surplus of 260 tons of turkey flesh. Rather than throw it all out and take the loss, a salesman named Gerry Thomas came up with a million-dollar idea. He ordered 5,000 aluminum trays and had workers fill them with turkey, peas, and sweet potatoes. Yes, it was the world’s first TV dinner, and it’s all thanks to one country not having a big enough appetite for a few extra tons of turkey.
London’s Westminster Abbey once hosted Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday—nobody is celebrating U.S. Pilgrims in countries like France or Germany—but the United Kingdom made an exception in 1942, when U.S. troops stationed in England during World War II were treated to a Thanksgiving service. All 3,500 soldiers were welcome inside Westminster Abbey, the first time in the church’s 700-year history that a foreign army was invited inside the sacred grounds. No turkey was served, but the troops sang along to patriotic tunes like “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Men find the smell of pumpkin pie arousing.
File this under “Things We Didn’t Need To Learn,” but it’s in our brains now, and we won’t be able to unlearn it in time for Thanksgiving. It’s all because of a 1995 study by Chicago’s Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, who decided to find out what men between the ages of 18 and 64 thought of dozens of different odors and scents. Pumpkin pie resulted in “increased male arousal” in 40 percent of the participants. And we’re not going to ask how they measured this arousal. Nope, sorry, don’t want to know. 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 Detroit Lions have played on Thanksgiving every day since 1934.
Football games have been scheduled on Thanksgiving 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 at University of Detroit Stadium. The Lions lost 19–16, but it was the beginning of a new tradition. They’ve played on every Thanksgiving ever since, except for a six year hiatus during World War II. It’s mostly been a winning streak for the team—their Thanksgiving record is 32 wins and 28 losses (and 2 ties before overtime was permitted).
“Jingle Bells” was originally a Thanksgiving song.
If you’re the type of person who gets annoyed at Christmas songs that are 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 written for kids celebrating Thanksgiving at his Boston Sunday School. The song became so popular with both kids and adults that he altered the lyrics and turned it into a Christmas song instead.
However, despite becoming one the holiday’s biggest hits, the tune didn’t make Pierpont a rich man. Far from it, in fact. Which is ironic, given that he was the uncle of John Pierpont Morgan, who you might recognize as banking magnate J.P. Morgan. Think about that the next time you sing “Jingle Bells”: the author died penniless, and his nephew started a bank that made billions.
Canada did Thanksgiving first.
Long before the supposed “first” Thanksgiving at Plymouth, an English explorer named Martin Frobisher was the first white guy to host a celebratory meal on North American turf. It happened in 1578—a whopping 43 years before the Pilgrims had their get-together—when Frobisher and his crew, looking for a northern route to the Orient, ended up on what we now call Newfoundland, on the most easterly province of Canada. They were so happy just to be alive that they took a day off for a big feast of beef, mushy peas, and crackers, which admittedly doesn’t sound very appetizing by our modern-day Thanksgiving standards.
Thomas Jefferson hated Thanksgiving.
Our third president, the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, wasn’t just unenthusiastic about Thanksgiving. He hated it. He’s often quoted as saying Thanksgiving “is the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard,” but those words never technically came out of his mouth or pen. He wasn’t really opposed to Thanksgiving, just government proclamations of Thanksgiving. At the time, Thanksgiving was still very much a religious celebration, with more fasting and prayer than feasting and pants-loosening, and Jefferson strongly believed in the separation of church and state. So, during his nine years in the White House, he didn’t so much ban Thanksgiving as just refuse to acknowledge it existed.
The world record for turkey carving is just over three minutes.
Three minutes and 19.47 seconds, to be exact, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. But here’s the really shameful part: the record is held by… a British person. Yes, that’s right, a citizen of the same government the Pilgrims were trying to escape. Paul Kelly of Essex, in the United Kingdom, achieved this stunning feat in the summer of 2009. He also holds the record for the fastest time to pluck three turkeys, achieving the feat is a dizzying eleven minutes and 30.16 seconds, beating out Gordon Ramsay for the title.
The country with the most turkey consumption is Israel.
We have many reasons to feel pride in our country, but turkey consumption isn’t one of them. Though U.S. citizens aren’t slackers when it comes to shoving plenty of turkey meat down our gullets, with an impressive 104.9 pounds consumed per person every year. Not bad at all, but that number pales in comparison to Israel, where the average citizen enjoys a staggering 127.2 pounds of poultry annually. Come on, America, let’s get our numbers up this year!
We have Thanksgiving on the same day every year because of a writer.
For most of the 1800s, Thanksgiving was celebrated on a different day depending on which US state you lived in. Writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who was best known for writing the classic nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” thought this was a travesty and we should all be sitting down to feast on turkey and mashed potatoes on the same day. So, she started a national campaign in 1837, writing impassioned editorials and sending letters to four presidents over 26 years, asking them to make the holiday “permanently, an American custom and institution.” She was ignored until President Abraham Lincoln got one of her letters, and he made a formal proclamation on October 3rd, 1863, declaring that Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November.
The night before Thanksgiving is the biggest drinking day of the year.
More than any other holiday, including boozy celebrations like New Year’s, the Super Bowl, and St. Patrick’s Day, the night before Thanksgiving is a boon for bar sales. Small business consulting firm Womply claims that “Drinksgiving”—yes, it’s got its own name now—brings an 167 percent increase in alcohol sales compared to a typical Wednesday night. Apparently lots of people need a little liquor courage to spend an entire day with family.
Even astronauts celebrate Thanksgiving.
Unlike the rest of us, astronauts “don’t actually have the day off on Thursday,” as NASA spokesman Dan Huot explained in an interview. 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. They don’t have dishes, alas, as everything is contained in foil or plastic packages. But the meal prep is easier than anything we contend with on Earth. They use foot warmers to heat up the turkey and other dishes. As astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted in 2012, “Tuck a pouch under the strap, velcro shut, wait 10 minutes—hot food!”
The first Thanksgiving probably lasted for three days.
If a full day seems like a long time to spend with family for one meal, it’s still got nothing on the original Thanksgiving. That first celebration in 1621, with 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims, as recorded by attendee Edward Winslow, took a full three days to complete. Obviously, they weren’t eating the whole time—at least we hope not, because that’s a lot to digest—and there were none of the usual Thanksgiving distractions like football or parade watching. Think about that when you make awkward conversation with your uncle when all you want him to do is pass the mashed potatoes. It could be worse—there could be two more days of this.
No one is entirely sure which president pardoned a turkey first.
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] pleas 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. Not that it does much good for the turkey. 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 years even if given a reprieve by the president.
Americans love our cranberries.
You’ve probably heard that cranberries are one of only three fruits, along with blueberries and Concord grapes, to be indigenous to North America. Sorry, that’s not really true. But is it true that 94 percent of Thanksgiving dinners include cranberries in some form. Each year Americans gulp back 400 million pounds of the small red berries, and 20 percent of those cranberries are consumed on Thanksgiving. Here’s another fun tip: If you want to find out if a cranberry is ripe, just throw it against the floor. If it bounces, it’s ready to eat. If it doesn’t, and makes a dull thud instead, throw those overripe cranberries away.
The day after Thanksgiving is a busy time for plumbers.
According to plumbing company Roto-Rooter, post-Thanksgiving business is so brisk for plumbers that they’ve given it the disgusting nickname “Brown Friday.” (We’ll let your imagination figure that one out on your own.)
As a Roto-Rooter spokesperson remarked, “Holiday guests put a strain on the plumbing system because toilets are flushed more often and extra showers are taken.” That pipe straining results in a 50 percent increase in panicky phone calls to plumbers, and a 21 percent increase in business compared to other holiday weekends during the year. Sorry, Christmas and Easter, you just don’t back up as many toilets.
The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade had live animals instead of balloons.
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 animals through the streets of New York. Not domesticated animals—we’re talking zoo animals like monkeys, bears, camels and elephants, all on loan from the Central Park Zoo.
Needless to say, the wild beasts freaked out the kids, so a few years later the live animals were replaced with giant balloons. 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 procedures, the balloons were simply released into the air. Anybody who recovered the balloons after they eventually came back to earth could return the tattered remains to Macy’s for a prize.
There was no pumpkin pie in the original Thanksgiving.
It had nothing to do with what we learned earlier in our list, that pumpkin pie makes men… aroused. No, the lack of delicious pie was mostly due to the lack of ovens available to Pilgrims or Native Americans at the time. And the general lack of sugar. According to our friends at the American Pie Council, pumpkin pie didn’t become a staple at Thanksgiving meals until 1623, during the Pilgrim’s second autumn feast. Another fun fact: a 2008 pie survey conducted by Schwan’s Consumer Brands found that 27 percent of people think their mom makes the best pie, narrowly beating out store pie with a 26 percent approval rating.
Thanksgiving is better the second time around.
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—nearly eight in ten Americans—think eating leftovers is more enjoyable than the actual Thanksgiving dinner. We could think of a lot of reasons for why this might be so, but probably the most compelling is that nobody gets all judgmental with you if you eat leftovers straight from Tupperware while wearing sweatpants with a very forgiving waistband.
Turkey doesn’t make you sleepy.
The tryptophan in turkey gets all the blame for people’s post-Thanksgiving grogginess. But turkey doesn’t have more tryptophan than any other poultry, and cheddar cheese has considerably more tryptophan. Regardless, tryptophan likely isn’t the culprit in your overwhelming need to nap. The real reason why you can’t keep your eyes open after gorging on carbs is… can you guess?… the motherlode of carbs and calories you’ve just consumed. And if you topped it off with a glass or two of wine, well, we can officially call this mystery solved.
Some Thanksgiving shoppers are drunk.
115 million people will be descending on stores on Black Friday to get a head start on their Christmas shopping. And an alarming number of them will be sloppy drunk.
A 2017 survey conducted by RetailMeNot.com found that roughly 12 percent of shoppers during the Thanksgiving rush are making their purchases while bombed on booze. Why they think being a little tipsy helps them make better shopping choices is beyond us. Just as distressingly, a quarter of Americans admitted in the same survey that they are “sleep deprived” while shopping during the four-day weekend. So, to review, if you decide to visit the malls on Thanksgiving weekend, keep in mind that a large number of people you’ll encounter are either silly drunk or barely awake. Have fun!
One sixth of all turkeys are consumed on Thanksgiving.
Presidential pardons aside, Thanksgiving is a frightening time to be a turkey. According to the National Turkey Federation, 45 million turkeys meet a grizzly end to provide enough meat for all the hungry Thanksgiving revelers. That’s 18 percent of all 244.5 million turkeys raised on American farms. Not a fun day to be a flightless bird.
The Pilgrims ate with spoons.
Here’s something else to give thanks for this Thanksgiving: you’ve got access to helpful cutlery like forks or knives. Can you imagine trying to carve a turkey with a spoon? Sounds terrible! But spoons were all the pilgrims had when they sat down for that first Thanksgiving dinner. Which may explain why turkey wasn’t on the menu. Frankly, we’re surprised the whole meal wasn’t just a series of lukewarm soups.
For some, Thanksgiving is a Day of Mourning.
Not everybody thinks Thanksgiving is a time for celebration. Since 1970, the Native Americans of New England have organized an annual protest at Plymouth Rock on Thanksgiving day, called “The National Day of Mourning,” to raise awareness that the relationship between the native and European settlers of North America weren’t as sunny and friendly as depicted in Thanksgiving mythology. It coincides with Unthanksgiving Day, or The Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, held on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco.
Benjamin Franklin was obsessed with turkeys.
If founding father Benjamin Franklin had his way, a turkey would’ve been the national bird of the United States instead of the Bald Eagle. As Franklin explained in a letter to his daughter, he considered the Bald Eagle “a bird of a bad moral character.” Turkeys, he wrote, are a “much more respectable bird, a true original native of America,” and “though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage.” Hmm. We’re not sure if this makes us feel guilty about eating turkey this Thanksgiving, or more enthusiastic about digesting such a vain and silly fowl.
There are three places in the United States named Turkey.
We’re not sure what Thanksgiving is like at Turkey, Texas; Turkey, North Carolina; or Turkey Creek, Louisiana, but we can only assume they’re legendary. If it isn’t, well, it’d be like visiting Christmas, Florida, and finding out they’re not into the whole Christmas thing. With less than 500 residents in each of these small towns, it might even be just one big party with everybody invited. Okay, that might be too ambitious, but we like the idea of all 389 people in Turkey, Texas getting together to eat turkey. Oh, and for more weirdly named American locales, check out The 50 Weirdest Town Names in America.
There is seriously an emergency turkey hotline.
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. 35 years ago, the hotline was taking an average of 11,000 calls during the Thanksgiving season. That number jumped to well over 100,000 calls in recent years. And the questions can get much more outrageous than just how long to leave a turkey in the oven. They’ve heard everything from “Can I brine my turkey in the washing machine?” to “The family dog is inside the turkey and can’t get out.” (If you’re curious, the dog was a Chihuahua and the turkey hotline operator was able to successfully navigate its exit from the bird.)
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