11 Fascinating Facts You Might Not Know About Thanksgiving

Turkey Day Tidbits

A hearty Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who plans to spend Thursday staying home and feasting on turkey, or turducken, or tofurkey, or *checks notes* ham? Sure, whatever!

Before you tuck into a safe, socially distanced Thanksgiving dinner, enjoy these interesting facts about everyone’s favorite cranberry-blasted, gravy-soaked November holiday.

The First Official Thanksgiving

While Thanksgiving as a U.S. tradition dates back to colonial times, Abraham Lincoln first proclaimed it an official holiday in 1863, during the Civil War, explicitly to brag about how bounteous and successful the Union was.

Mary Had a Little Turkey

Sarah Josepha Hale

Credit for that proclamation goes largely to Sarah Josepha Hale. She was a writer and editor who had spent some 40 years sending letters to politicians to advocate for a Thanksgiving holiday. Hale also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

There Can Be Only One

It took decades for the U.S. to land Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of every November. But its general November timing meant it eventually supplanted another holiday: Evacuation Day, which celebrated the British exit (Brexit?) from the U.S. following the Revolutionary War.

Potty Humor

Speaking of Evacuation Day, the day after Thanksgiving is the busiest of the year for plumbers! They are called in record numbers to deal with, um, heavily taxed sewage systems everywhere.

Tom vs. Thanksgiving

Thomas Jefferson once called Thanksgiving “the most ridiculous idea ever conceived.” Pretty hot take from a man who supported slavery.

Ben vs. Eagles

Adult Turkey

Meanwhile, according to popular legend, Ben Franklin felt the turkey should be our national bird. That is actually a myth. It sprang from a letter he wrote his daughter to criticize the choice of the bald eagle to represent the young United States. He said the eagle is lazy, whereas the turkey is “a much more respectable bird” and “a true original Native of America.” He also called the turkey a “bird of courage,” which seems like a stretch. Are turkeys known for being courageous and we just missed the memo?

Turkey Talk

Baby turkeys are called poults, and they’re pretty cute. Adult male turkeys are the only ones who make “gobble gobble” noises and thus are called gobblers, imaginatively enough. They are significantly less cute.

Thanksgiving Innovation

In 1953, Swanson produced too many turkeys for Thanksgiving. With some 260 tons of extra bird meat lying around, they carved it up, slapped it in a metal tray with some stuffing and frozen peas, and created the world’s first frozen TV dinner.

Turkey Bells?

Hand holding jingle bells

“Jingle Bells,” written in the 1850s, was originally a Thanksgiving song! But folks liked it so much, they tweaked the lyrics a bit and started playing it (and playing it and playing it) at Christmas time.

Aloha, Makahiki

The 1621 harvest feast America refers to as the “first Thanksgiving” lasted three days. That might seem like a lot of pie time, but Makahiki, the ancient Hawaiian “thanksgiving” tradition, lasts four months. From roughly October or November through January or February, the Hawaiian people were meant to rest, feast, and give thanks—and refrain from activities like deep-sea fishing and warfare.

The War Over Thanksgiving

Speaking of warfare, Thanksgiving can be considered the battlefield for perhaps America’s earliest “culture war.” On one side, you have a whitewashed tale of buckle-happy pilgrims making nice with their Native American pals. And on the other, the rather more complicated history of European immigrants’ treatment of their native neighbors.

And in the 1800s, Southern states didn’t approve of Thanksgiving. They accused the New England holiday of spreading Yankee values.


Image credits: Thanksgiving dinner photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash; Sarah Hale in the Public Domain; Adult turkey photo by Kranthi Remala from Pexels; Jingle bells photo by James Lee on Unsplash