My apologies to our non-American visitors to Austen Authors, but here in the United States of America, we are smack in the middle of a BIG holiday week impossible to ignore. Personally, Thanksgiving has always been my second favorite holiday after Christmas. As a relatively simple holiday primarily involving food, and maybe football, but little else, Thanksgiving does not require as much pre-planning as Christmas. Nevertheless, it is definitely in the top five anticipated annual events for most people in the US. It is also deeply rooted in our history as a nation and involves a wealth of traditions that are unique to our culture, as opposed to most other holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Halloween that “steal” traditions from numerous other countries. With this in mind, today I shall share tidbits of trivia and facts surrounding the purely American holiday we fondly call THANKSGIVING.
A Brief, VERY Brief, History of the First Thanksgiving
Those Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower who survived the first harsh winter in what would become Plymouth village came ashore in March of 1621. Weakened by malnutrition and illness, the Pilgrims may not have survived if not for the assistance of Squanto, and the Wampanoag and Abenaki tribes. The natives taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, which plants to avoid, and so on. The alliance forged between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag would endure for more than fifty years.
By November of 1621, the Pilgrims were thriving and the first corn harvest proved successful. Plymouth Governor William Bradford initiated a celebratory feast and invited their Native American friends, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. The feast to give thanks to God for their survival and bounteous harvest lasted for three days!
No record remains of the exact foods served on the menu. Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. It is known that the Pilgrims did not have an oven, and the sugar supply had dwindled, so pies and cakes probably weren’t enjoyed. There are references to fish, including shellfish, and lots of vegetables and grains.
No forks at the first Thanksgiving!The first Thanksgiving was eaten with spoons and knives — but no forks! That’s right, forks weren’t even introduced to the Pilgrims until 10 years later and weren’t a popular utensil until the 18th century.
Why turkey? There is no evidence that the Pilgrims served turkey at the first Thanksgiving, although it is possible since there were wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, as Governor William Bradford noted in his book Of Plymouth Plantation. When Thanksgiving Day was officially declared (see down the page for more history) the nostalgia of Bradford’s descriptions of hunting wild turkeys coupled with the bird being uniquely North American led gradually to their preference. Additionally, turkeys are much bigger than other fowl so better able to feed a large family gathering, while not being too common a meat choice so therefore “special” for a special occasion.
TV dinners have Thanksgiving to thank. In 1953, someone at Swanson misjudged the number of frozen turkeys it would sell that Thanksgiving — by 26 TONS! Swanson executive Gerry Thomas came up with a brilliant plan: Why not slice up the meat and repackage with some trimmings on the side? 5000 aluminum trays similar to those used for airline meals, were filled with cornbread stuffing, frozen peas, and sweet potatoes. They were packaged and sold for 98 cents. The TV dinner was born!
About 46 million turkeys are cooked for Thanksgiving each year (as opposed to roughly 22 million turkeys on Christmas), but according to the National Turkey Federation — Yes, that is a real thing! — only 88% of Americans chose turkey for Thanksgiving. This is down from 91% just 5 years ago. What are YOUR Thanksgiving dinner menu preferences?
Butterball answers more than 100,000 turkey-cooking questions via their Butterball Turkey Hotline each November and December. It all began in 1981 when six home economists worked the phones that holiday season to answer 11,000 turkey-cooking questions.
- Only the male turkey can make the “gobble” sound. Female turkeys make a “cackle” sound.
- A male turkey is called a tom, a female is a hen, and a youngster is a poult.
- A wild turkey prefers to walk or run but it can fly for short distances up to 55 miles per hour. It can run up to 20 miles per hour.
- The domestic turkey is not an agile flyer but will perch in trees to stay safe from predators.
- The average life span of a domestic turkey from birth to freezer is 26 weeks. The average life span of a wild turkey is three or four years.
- Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the National bird, but was overruled by Thomas Jefferson. According to legend, Franklin was so mad that he mockingly referred to the turkey as “Tom” to irritate Jefferson!
The traditional CORNUCOPIA is a curved goat’s horn filled to brim with fruits and grains. According to Greek legend, Amalthea (a goat) broke one of her horns and offered it to Greek God Zeus as a sign of reverence. As a sign of gratitude, Zeus later set the goat’s image in the sky also known as constellation Capricorn. Cornucopia is the most common symbol of a harvest festival. A Horn shaped container, it is filled with abundance of the Earth’s harvest. It is also known as the ‘horn of plenty’. Today, cornucopias come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, and are stuffed with a wide array of materials, although objects befitting a harvest theme are most common. Below is a photo of my table centerpiece with a new cornucopia I just made.
Thanksgiving football games began with Yale versus Princeton in 1876. Less than a decade later, more than 5,000 club, college and high school football teams held games on Thanksgiving, with match-ups between Princeton and Yale drawing more than 40,000 fans out from their dining rooms. 1934 marked the first NFL game held on Thanksgiving when the Detroit Lions took on the Chicago Bears. The Lions have played on Thanksgiving ever since — except, of course, when the team was called away to serve during World War II. This year there are THREE games scheduled on Thanksgiving Thursday: The Detroit Lions vs. the Chicago Bears are up first; then the Buffalo Bills vs. the Dallas Cowboys; and lastly, the New Orleans Saints vs. the Atlanta Falcons.
Green bean casserole was invented in 1955 by Campbell’s.The recipe was originally created for an Associated Press holiday food feature. The recipe supervisor at the New Jersey Campbell Soup home economics kitchen is credited with creating the ubiquitous Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup recipe. Campbell’s estimates that it sells more than $20 million dollars of that variety every year. Today there are many variations of the original, of course, but to be a true green bean casserole one must not stray too far afield!
Jingle Bells was originally a Thanksgiving song. The song was composed by James Pierpont in 1857 for his Sunday school class’ Thanksgiving performance at their church. He wrote the song with simplicity in mind so that his students would have no trouble memorizing the tune. The song was so well-received at the Thanksgiving concert, that the children sang it again at Christmas–and that’s how it became associated with that holiday rather than Thanksgiving.
In 1942, the United Kingdom hosted Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey in London for the US 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. More than 3,500 soldiers gathered in the pews and sang patriotic anthems America the Beautiful and The Star-Spangled Banner. A truly beautiful, and somewhat ironic, gesture in light of the American holiday’s origins resulted from Pilgrims fleeing religious tyranny in Britain.
Originally known as Macy’s Christmas Parade—to signify the launch of the Christmas shopping season—the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade took place in New York City in 1924. It was launched by Macy’s employees and featured animals from the Central Park Zoo. Tony Sarg, a children’s book illustrator and puppeteer, designed the first giant hot air balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927. Felix the Cat was the first balloon to fly over the streets of New York City in the 1927 parade. Felix (seen to the right) was inflated with helium and the organizers had no plans to deflate him, so they simply let him fly away! Snoopy has appeared as a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade more times than any other character in history. As the Flying Ace, Snoopy made his sixth appearance in the 2006 parade. Today, some 3 million people attend the annual parade and another 44 million watch it on television.
A Brief, VERY Brief, History of the Establishment of Thanksgiving
Of note, it is important to point out that harvest feasts for thankfulness and celebration have occurred in nearly all cultures and countries since the dawn of time, including the North American continent by explorers and other colonists. The Puritans, who comprised the majority of the Mayflower Pilgrims, had a long history of celebrating bounty and holding feasts for religious observances. For these reasons, the Thanksgiving feast of 1621 was not a unique or unheard of event, but it was the first to take place by the ancestors who specifically founded what would, in time, become the United States of America.
For the century to follow, Thanksgiving proclamations were very common throughout the colonies, declared by churches and state leaders. The first official Thanksgiving for this fledgling country came in October of 1777 when ALL thirteen colonies celebrated on the same day. Shortly thereafter, in 1789, the inaugural National Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President George Washington for Thursday, November 26.
Over the next almost 100 years, Thanksgiving feasts continued to be mostly a local area event with the occasional state recognized date. Not until the Civil War tore the country in half did the concept of a National Thanksgiving gain popularity. It was Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), best known as the author of books and poems who also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb, who made it happen. Over many years she wrote endlessly to political leaders, her renown finally bringing her appeals to President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, unlike the six previous presidents Hale had written to, saw the worth in her request.
On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared the last Thursday in November (based on Washington’s date) to be a day of “thanksgiving and praise.”
There were a couple of hiccups in the century after, but for the most part, Thanksgiving Day in the USA has continued unaltered ever since.
For more of the history, including the full proclamations, visit my website for the series on Thanksgiving History.
Time for a wee test! All in good fun, guess the correct answer before “cheating” by reading the answers below.
- The best place to insert the meat thermometer into a turkey is:
- The breast
- The middle of the back
- The thigh
- Which president is believed to be the first to pardon a turkey and start this annual tradition?
- President Lincoln in 1863
- President Roosevelt in 1939
- President Truman in 1947
- How many calories are consumed by the average American on Thanksgiving Day?
- 4,500 calories
- 2,000 calories
- 9,000 calories
- Which Thanksgiving food aroma has been scientifically proven to increase arousal in men?
- Cranberry sauce
- Pumpkin pie
- Turkey gravy
- Which alcoholic beverage did the Pilgrims drink to wash down their food?
- Which of these movies is NOT centered around Thanksgiving?
- Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
- Free Birds
- You’ve Got Mail
- The Holiday