As you prepare to settle down to your own fall harvest Thanksgiving meal, consider these interesting – and often unrealized facts – about this very American tradition. If nothing else, these historical appetizers will make great conversation starters regardless of political orientation – as long as you stay away from the history of Franksgiving (see below).
The feast celebrated now as Thanksgiving in the United States took place at Plymouth Colony in 1621 and lasted for three days. It was attended by 53 colonists and 90 Wampanoag.
The first Thanksgiving in Plymouth did not have forks, but rather people ate with spoons, knives and their fingers.
According to the writings of colonist Edward Winslow, “wild fowl” was served, but it is not clear if that meant duck, goose, swan or turkey.
While we do not know if turkey was served (and it likely was not) historians do know that venison, eel and lobster were served along with the side dishes of nuts, cranberries, pumpkin (but no pie), squash and carrots.
Regardless of the likely historical absence of turkey in 1621 Plymouth, Americans gobbled about 690 million pounds of turkey in 2007. This year, about 48 million turkeys will be eaten on Thanksgiving. It is unclear how many Tofurkeys will be consumed.
Turduckens – a turkey stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken – has gained popularity in recent years as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast.
Benjamin Franklin was so fond of turkey that he lobbied to make it the national bird. His call was not heeded and we got the regal eagle instead.
The woman who wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb, Sarah Josepha Hale, spent decades lobbying Washington D.C. to make Thanksgiving a national holiday – and finally succeeded when Lincoln, seeing the unifying potential of the holiday, issued a proclamation in 1863 that Thanksgiving was to be an annual holiday celebrated across the nation on the last Thursday of November.
In 1939 at the end of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the 3rd Thursday in November to extend the Christmas shopping season. The sudden date change was met with vociferous opposition. Republicans called this new date “Franksgiving.” In protest, they alternatively celebrated what they called a Republican Thanksgiving the following week. The 1942 movie musical Holiday Inn pokes fun at these competing dates with an animated and confused turkey that jumps back and forth between the two weeks on a calendar.
In 1941, Congress finally settled the squabbling over the official date of Thanksgiving by adopting a resolution that set the fourth Thursday in November as the legally observed holiday.
Illinois is the number one pumpkin grower – on average they provide 520 million pounds of pumpkin per year, much of it consumed on Thanksgiving. Wisconsin produces the most cranberries (450 million pounds) while North Carolina is the top sweet potato producer (1.3 billion pounds).
The now famous Macy Day Thanksgiving parade started in 1924 by Macy employees, but rather than the huge balloons of today, that first parade featured live animals such as lions, bears, elephants, camels and tigers.
Every year on Alcatraz island in the San Francisco Bay, the International Indian Treaty Council hosts an Unthanksgiving Day, which is also known as The Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony.
Presidentially-pardoned turkeys are now sent to Mount Vernon (George Washington’s estate) to live out their final days.
Black Friday, that infamous day of great deals, is projected to reel in over $602 billion dollars for retailers this year. This number exceeds the GDP of Czech Republic, Ukraine and Slovenia combined. I suggest you skip this frenetic day of shopping and spend one extra quality day with your friends and family instead. Charades anyone?