Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Thanksgiving
Why do we watch football on Thanksgiving? When did it become a national holiday? All these questions and more, answered
Thanksgiving is so much more than an annual holiday dedicated to fighting with your parents over very delicious helpings of various carbs. Before your food coma sets in, we’re here to get you up to speed with answers to everything you’ve ever wanted to ask about Turkey Day (although we unfortunately can’t promise your mom won’t nag you about your love life … or lack thereof).
1. So when did it all go down?
Well, the feast between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians that people commonly refer to as the first Thanksgiving was in 1621, but it wasn’t repeated the following year, so it’s hard to consider it the beginning of a tradition. America’s Continental Congress suggested a yearly holiday during the American Revolution, and New York was the first to adopt an annual Thanksgiving, which it did in 1817.
2. Okay then … so when did it become a thing?
By the middle of the 19th century, most states had followed New York’s lead, and in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln denoted the last Thursday of November as the national holiday. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up a week — to Nov. 23, the next to last Thursday of the month, to encourage the economy during the later years of the Great Depression. But that change proved unpopular, so in November of 1941, Roosevelt signed a bill into law officially making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of the month.
3. What pushed Lincoln to make it a thing?
Well, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for one thing. The nursery rhyme’s creator, Sarah Josepha Hale, launched a full-on, 36-year campaign on behalf of the holiday. She wrote about it in novels and magazines and even sent a letter directly to Lincoln — among many other politicians — in 1863.
4. Have we always eaten turkey?
Well, fowl would have been part of the menu at the first feast, though no official records exist of what exactly the pilgrims ate at the historic gathering. But given what they were hunting in the area, turkey is likely. The Wampanoag brought deer, and lobster, seal and swan were apparently also on the menu. Missing: Pies or any desserts, because the pilgrims were short on sugar by 1621 and also had no ovens.
5. Tell me more about turkey.
That’s not a question, but fine. Did you know, for instance, that we owe TV dinners to Thanksgiving? In 1953, Swanson found themselves with a 260-ton surplus of turkey, so a salesman named Gerry Thomas ordered 5,000 trays and put together a small army of workers to portion the turkey into the trays – with helpings of corn, peas and sweet potatoes, of course. Boom, history made.
6. And how many turkeys do we eat every year?
Forty-six million, according to an estimate from the National Turkey Federation.
7. Is there a phone number I can call about my turkey?
Hahaha, you’re fun — wait, no, that’s actually a thing. Butterball has a dedicated Turkey Talk-Line that answers questions about turkeys at 1-800-BUTTERBALL. It actually started in 1981 with just six people on the line, though they’re likely to answer in excess of 100,000 calls this year.
8. Speaking of important things: Who do I have to thank for green bean casserole?
Campbell’s. The soup company created the recipe with the Associated Press’s longtime food editor, Cecily Brownstone, about 50 years ago — partially to jack up demand for their cream of mushroom soup. Nowadays, they sell about $20 million worth of the stuff annually, thanks mostly to America’s favorite side (no offense, stuffing).
9. Has anyone ever opposed Thanksgiving?
Thomas Jefferson, for one. He called it “the most ridiculous idea,” but it was largely couched in the concept of “thanksgiving” as a religious idea and Jefferson’s fierce devotion to the separation of church and state.
10. Mmm-hmm. And where does football come in?
So glad you asked. Football on Thanksgiving actually dates back to 1876, when the American Intercollegiate Football Association held its first championship game. In under a decade, over 5,000 club, college and high school football teams began playing on the holiday, with Princeton and Yale’s mythic rivalry drawing on average about 40,000-plus fans. The Detroit Lions have played every Thanksgiving since 1934, except when the team was serving on World War II.
11. I can barely watch the game because I end up passing out. But why?
For a long time, it was an oft-repeated trope that tryptophan, an amino acid turkeys have in spades, was responsible for the post-Thanksgiving nap. But actually, chickens are more loaded with the stuff than turkeys, and you don’t conk out every time you eat some McNuggets, do you?
12. So then why am I always so sleepy after gorging?
Thanksgiving’s carb-heavy, multi-course plate loads require a lot of energy to digest, and that’s gonna have you headed for the nearest soft surface faster than anything else. Think of it like this: If you’re sleeping, you don’t have to answer when your aunt asks you (for the fifth time) whether you’re seeing anyone special yet. And that’s what Thanksgiving is all about, after all.