Ah, Thanksgiving. It’s the one holiday that encourages stuffing your face and falling asleep by three in the afternoon. When you and your kin descend upon your parents’/aunt’s/best friend’s house for dinner this year, go prepared with some Thanksgiving fun facts in your back pocket. You’ll wow the family and might just earn yourself an extra slice of pie for being the most knowledgeable one at the table.
It’s time to study up, wannabe Thanksgiving connoisseurs.
1Turkey may not have been on the original Thanksgiving menu.
The pilgrim colony scholar, Edward Winslow, reported in 1621 that the colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent men “fowling” in preparation for the feast between the pilgrims and the Wampanoags. But although wild turkey was plentiful in the Plymouth region, no records show that the fowling mission resulted in turkey being brought back for the feast.
And yes, there is a record of what was on the table at that first Thanksgiving meal. According to History.com, Winslow noted that the Wampanoags gifted the pilgrims five deer, so we know for sure that venison was on the menu, as was corn, barley, shellfish, and possibly raw cranberries.
If turkey wasn’t brought back from said fowling mission, other birds like ducks, geese, and swans were probably caught and served with onions and nuts.
2There wasn’t actually one giant Thanksgiving feast at the first celebration.
The foods the pilgrims and Wampanoags ate were served over a three-day period. Think festival rather than a one-day feast. There were most likely hunting expeditions and day-long sources of entertainment for all involved.
3You can give thanks to Thanksgiving for the invention of TV dinners.
In 1953, an overzealous employee of C.A. Swanson & Sons miscalculated how many turkeys the company would sell during the Thanksgiving season. This miscalculation resulted in Swanson ending up with 260 tons of leftover frozen birds. Not knowing what to do with the enormous overload of poultry, Swanson salesman Gerry Thomas came up with the idea of pre-cooking the leftover turkey, freezing it, and then packaging slices of it with typical Thanksgiving sides.
Although the company wasn’t sure Thomas’s idea would take off, by 1954, Swanson had sold over 10 million turkey TV dinners. The frozen dinner market is now a booming multi-billion dollar industry. We’ll be giving thanks to Gerry Thomas this Thanksgiving for his invention that has saved us many a late night.
4The Wampanoags might not have even been invited to the first Thanksgiving.
When the pilgrims decided to throw this three-day festival to celebrate their successful harvest, they shot guns and canons in the air. The Wampanoag chief heard these shots and decided to investigate, intending to attack if necessary. Which is totally reasonable, considering he just heard GUN SHOTS.
Vincent Schilling from Indian Country Today writes that the chief brought 90 Wampanoag warriors with him to the Pilgrim settlement. They outnumbered the pilgrims and there was probably tension between the two parties before any eating or drinking occurred.
5Listening to “Alice’s Restaurant” is a Thanksgiving tradition for many households, but the song really has nothing to do with Thanksgiving.
Arlo Guthrie’s song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” became somewhat of a Thanksgiving American anthem when it was released in 1967. The 18-minute long folk song is played annually on radio stations across the country during dinnertime, but why?
According to Chicago’s WXRT, Guthrie’s song tells the story of his spat with a police officer on Thanksgiving Day and how that spat affected Guthrie’s draft status for the Vietnam War. In Guthrie’s own words, said during a 2007 interview, the song is about, “Stupidity. It’s purely a celebration of idiocy.”
So when you’re celebrating Thanksgiving by listening to “Alice’s Restaurant,” you’re also apparently celebrating idiocy. Soo, maybe don’t.
6Celebrating Thanksgiving didn’t become an annual tradition until 200 years after the first Thanksgiving took place.
The pilgrims did celebrate Thanksgiving annually for a few years after the original festival took place. But the tradition dwindled toward the middle of the 17th century. In 1777, the Continental Congress declared the first national Thanksgiving be celebrated, and Presidents Washington, Adams, and Monroe did the same during their terms. But nationally celebrating Thanksgiving went out of fashion by 1815.
An American writer by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale decided to recreate the famous Pilgrim-Wampanoag meal after reading and being inspired by a diary kept by one of the original pilgrims. In 1827, Hale started a nearly 30-year campaign to make Thanksgiving a nationally celebrated holiday. Finally in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln granted Hale’s wish and declared Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November.
7 In fact, Sarah Josepha Hale is responsible for creating our traditional Thanksgiving Day foods more so than the pilgrims and Wampanoags.
Hale is often referred to as the “Godmother of Thanksgiving” due to her long-lived campaign to make the holiday nationally and annually celebrated. In 1827, Hale wrote and published a novel called, Northwood, in which she described the New England Thanksgiving tradition in detail, including what was on the table.
Because of her book’s success, Hale was given an editorial position at Godey’s Lady’s Book, a highly influential women’s magazine of the time. While she held her position there, Hale wrote The Good Housekeeper, a cookbook and homemaker’s guide. It’s this book that most of our well-loved Thanksgiving recipes like pumpkin pie, stuffing, and mashed potatoes come from.
8Franklin D. Roosevelt rescheduled Thanksgiving during the Depression.
In order to help Depression-era retailers make more money during the Christmas season, in 1939 FDR moved Thanksgiving up a week. In 1941, Congress officially switched Thanksgiving from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday in November, where it has stayed ever since.
9There were actually several Thanksgiving celebrations before the pilgrim and Wampanoag festival.
The Native tribes in America celebrated and gave thanks to nature for their plentiful harvests with feasting and entertainment long before European settlers arrived. And likewise, early Europeans also celebrated successful harvests and overcoming illness with the same festivities, giving their thanks to God.
There’s also an ongoing argument between American states about who had the “first official Thanksgiving” on American soil. The Plimoth Plantation website states that Florida, Texas, Maine and Virginia all claim and have proof that Spanish explorers and English settlers had religious celebrations of Thanksgiving long before the Mayflower hit the Plymouth shore.
Unfortunately, these celebrations were forgotten until recently and had no effect on the creation of the modern day Thanksgiving that we know and celebrate. Massachusetts takes home the prize for this one.
Thanksgiving today may not be that similar to that first shared meal between the pilgrims and Wampanoags, but the idea behind the gathering is the same. Sorta. Give thanks for what you have and enjoy the community around you.