(As originally run online Nov. 19, 2017)
Thanksgiving is one of the biggest and most anticipated of all American holidays. Observed annually on the fourth Thursday of November, the secular celebration, which marks the beginning of the holiday season, can be traced to a harvest feast enjoyed by the early European settlers, or Pilgrims, and Native Americans. Though food remains the centerpiece of the celebration, many other fun traditions have been added since. Here is some Thanksgiving trivia to get the conversation going as you sit down for the scrumptious meal on November 23.
The first Thanksgiving feast was organized by Governor William Bradford in 1621 to celebrate the Pilgrims’ inaugural harvest. According to the folklore, he invited Native Americans to the three-day event, which included hunting and fishing, to thank them for their help. Though that was a one-time celebration, harvest festivals became fairly common in the following years, especially in the northern states. The first attempt to unify the various celebrations came in 1789 when George Washington suggested a national day of Thanksgiving. The leader thought it would be a good way for the nation to commemorate the “happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the US Constitution.” However, the idea received little support from the American people and was abandoned shortly after.
In 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale, most famous for the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” began petitioning through editorials and letters for a national Thanksgiving celebration. It took the magazine editor 17 years, but in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln finally proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. In 1941, to avoid confusion, the US Congress set the date to the fourth Thursday of the month.
November is the month of choice because it was when the original feast was organized by the Pilgrims. It also happens to be right after the US harvest season. There appears to be no real significance to Thursday, except that it was the day picked by President Lincoln. However, it is perfect because it allows for an extended weekend enabling families to take road trips to celebrate the holiday together.
How Turkey Became The Centerpiece of The Dinner
Though there were plenty of wild turkeys in 1621, the bird was not on the original Thanksgiving menu. According to two separate accounts of the first Thanksgiving, the Native Americans and Pilgrims feasted on goose, lobster, cod, and deer. Some believe turkeys were selected because they were cheaper than geese or chickens and easier to raise. Others think the tradition stems from a mention of the bird in a letter describing the first Thanksgiving by Pilgrim Edward Winslow. Some credit also goes to Hale, who urged officials to make the bird a Thanksgiving staple while petitioning for the holiday. US President Abraham Lincoln, who loved roasted turkey agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since sugar was a rare luxury in 1621, it is unlikely that cranberry sauce made an appearance on the inaugural Thanksgiving meal. The first recorded mention of the sweet sauce was made by visitors to the Plymouth area in 1663. However, the tradition is believed to have started in 1864, when General Ulysses Grant ordered cranberries be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal.
Competing to crack the turkey’s wishbone in half is a popular Thanksgiving tradition. According to the myth, the person with the larger piece gets his/her secret wish fulfilled. This fun ritual is thought to have been passed on to us by the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization. While they are believed to have used chicken or geese wishbones, we, of course, have no choice but to use those of the turkey’s.
This Thanksgiving tradition started when the American Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA) staged the championship game between Yale and Princeton on the day in 1876. It was such a success that it became a holiday staple. When IFA abandoned the tradition in 1934, the Detroit Lions seized the opportunity to attract more locals to their games. It was enormously popular. The inaugural game against the undefeated Chicago Bears was sold out two weeks before the event, and many fans had to be turned away. Since then, except for a short break from 1939-1944, the Lions have played every Thanksgiving! The Dallas Cowboys joined the tradition in 1966, and the two teams now attract millions of viewers on the holiday.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, which was started by the department store employees in 1924, initially featured animals from New York’s Central Park Zoo. While they have long been replaced by the giant floats, the event remains extremely popular. An estimated 3.5 million people gather along Manhattan’s 77th Street and Central Park West to watch the procession each year, while 50 million more enjoy it on television.