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Thanksgiving History Facts and Trivia

What did they eat at the first Thanksgiving? Which president made Thanksgiving a national holiday? Get Thanksgiving trivia to share around the table.
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Thanksgiving may be America’s most beloved national holiday, but its history is all over the place. Even the details of the famous feast between the Plymouth Colony settlers and the Wampanoag Indians in November of 1621 are sketchy. The best account we have is a letter from English settler Edward Winslow that never mentions the word “Thanksgiving,” but tells of a weeklong harvest celebration that included a three-day celebration with King Massasoit and 90 Wampanoag men “so we might after a more special manner rejoice together.”

Over the centuries, that briefly-mentioned feast week has taken on a life of its own, with each generation adding its own take on the fall tradition. We’ve pulled together some little-known trivia so you have something to talk about (other than politics) around the Thanksgiving dinner table this November.

Where was the first Thanksgiving?

Colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts that is widely acknowledged as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations. But some historians argue that Florida, not Massachusetts, may have been the true site of the first Thanksgiving in North America. In 1565, nearly 60 years before Plymouth, a Spanish fleet came ashore and planted a cross in the sandy beach to christen the new settlement of St. Augustine. To celebrate the arrival and give thanks for God’s providence, the 800 Spanish settlers shared a festive meal with the native Timucuan people. Read more.

What did they eat at the first Thanksgiving?

The Thanksgiving meal in Plymouth probably had little in common with today’s traditional holiday spread. Although turkeys were indigenous, there’s no record of a big, roasted bird at the feast. The Wampanoag brought deer and there would have been lots of local seafood (mussels, lobster, bass) plus the fruits of the first pilgrim harvest, including pumpkin. No mashed potatoes, though. Potatoes had only been recently shipped back to Europe from South America. Read more.

When did America first call for a national Thanksgiving?

America first called for a national day of thanksgiving to celebrate victory over the British in the Battle of Saratoga. In 1789, George Washington again called for national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November in 1777 to commemorate the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution. And during the Civil War, both the Confederacy and the Union issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations following major victories.

Which president refused to recognize Thanksgiving?

Thomas Jefferson was famously the only Founding Father and early president who refused to declare days of thanksgiving and fasting in the United States. Unlike his political rivals, the Federalists, Jefferson believed in “a wall of separation between Church and State” and believed that endorsing such celebrations as president would amount to a state-sponsored religious worship. Read more.

What does the poem, 'Mary had a little lamb,' have to do with Thanksgiving?

The first official proclamation of a national Thanksgiving holiday didn’t come until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln called for an annual Thanksgiving celebration on the final Thursday in November. The proclamation was the result of years of impassioned lobbying by "Mary Had a Little Lamb" author and abolitionist Sarah Josepha Hale. Read more.

How long has pumpkin pie been a traditional part of Thanksgiving?

Pumpkin pie was a staple on New England Thanksgiving tables as far back as the turn of the 18th century. Legend has it that the Connecticut town of Colchester postponed its Thanksgiving feast for a week in 1705 due to a molasses shortage. There could simply be no Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. Read more.

When did we start canning cranberries?

Cranberries were eaten by Native Americans and used as a potent red dye, but sweetened cranberry relish was almost certainly not on the first Thanksgiving table. The pilgrims had long exhausted their sugar supply by November 1621. Marcus Urann canned the first jellied cranberry sauce in 1912 and eventually founded the cranberry growers cooperative known as Ocean Spray.

How did a botched Thanksgiving order lead to the TV tray dinner?

In 1953, an employee at C.A. Swanson & Sons overestimated demand for Thanksgiving turkey and the company was left with some 260 tons of extra frozen birds. As a solution, Smithsonian reports, a Swanson salesman ordered 5,000 aluminum trays, devised a turkey meal and recruited an assembly line of workers to compile what would become the first TV tray dinners. A culinary hit was born. In the first full year of production, 1954, the company sold 10 million turkey TV tray dinners.

Why is football a Thanksgiving tradition?

The winning combo of football and Thanksgiving kicked off way before there was anything called the NFL. The first Thanksgiving football game was a college match between Yale and Princeton in 1876, only 13 years after Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Soon after, Thanksgiving was picked for the date of the college football championships. By the 1890s, thousands of college and high school football rivalries were played every Thanksgiving. Read more.

Who was the first president to pardon a turkey?

Starting in the 1940s, farmers would gift the president with some plump birds for roast turkey over the holidays, which the first family would invariably eat. While President John F. Kennedy was the first American president to spare a turkey’s life (“We’ll just let this one grow,” JFK quipped in 1963. “It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.”) the annual White House tradition of “pardoning” a turkey officially started with George H.W. Bush in 1989.

Which president received a raccoon as a Thanksgiving gift?

In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge received a somewhat odd Thanksgiving gift in the form of a live raccoon. Meant to be eaten (the Mississippi man who sent it called raccoon meat “toothsome”), the Coolidge family adopted the pet and named it Rebecca. Rebecca was only the latest addition to their already substantial White House menagerie that included a black bear, a wallaby, and a pygmy hippo named Billy. Read more.

When was the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?

To celebrate the expansion of its Herald Square superstore, Macy’s announced its very first “Big Christmas Parade” two weeks before Thanksgiving in 1924, promising “magnificent floats,” bands and an “animal circus.” A huge success, Macy’s trimmed the parade route from six miles to two miles and signed a TV contract with NBC to broadcast the now famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. See video

When did the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade start featuring balloons?

The first oversized balloons debuted in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1927. The brainchild of Anthony Frederick Sarg, a German-born puppeteer and theatrical designer who also created Macy’s fantastical Christmas window displays, the first balloons were filled with oxygen, not helium. That year they featured Felix the Cat and inflated animals like elephants, tigers and a giant hummingbird. See photos.

Which president tried to move the date of Thanksgiving and why?

Concerned that the Christmas shopping season was cut short by a late Thanksgiving, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decreed in 1939 that Thanksgiving would be celebrated a week earlier. “Franksgiving,” as it was known, was decried by Thanksgiving traditionalists and political rivals (one even compared FDR to Hitler) and was only adopted by 23 of the 48 states. Congress officially moved Thanksgiving back to the fourth Thursday of November in 1941, where it has remained ever since. 

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