Five Little-Known Thanksgiving Facts

Give thanks and share some Turkey Day knowledge -- when you're not busy eating -- with friends and family.

It’s that special time of year again -- time for football, family and ridiculous amounts of food. Oh, and it’s also the time to give thanks for football, family and food. Especially football.

Once you’ve put away that last bite of turkey and loosened your belt a few notches, I'm sure you'll have a tiny bit of room to ingest some Thanksgiving knowledge:

1. The first Thanksgiving was a harvest feast in Plymouth, Mass. It's widely acknowledged that in 1621, Pilgrims from the Mayflower broke bread with local Native Americans -- the Wampanoag Indians, to be exact. This three-day feast later became known as Thanksgiving. Everyone knows this one, right?

What some folks may not know:

  • The only documentation of that feast comes from two brief passages from the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow.


  • The second Thanksgiving celebration was held in 1623 to mark the end of a long drought.

2. Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a holiday. Lincoln must have loved him some turkey, because in October 1863 he made the fourth Thursday in November a national holiday.

He probably clocks in as America’s second-greatest turkey-lover, right behind Ben Franklin, who tried to make the turkey our national bird. If that had happened, maybe we’d be eating bald eagle every November.

In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to move Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November. He hoped the move would help retail sales during the Great Depression -- the start of the tradition? When that didn't fly, he conceded and signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of the month.

But the aforementioned presidents weren’t the only people to have a major impact on Thanksgiving…

3. The author of “Mary had a Little Lamb” helped make Thanksgiving possible. Sarah Josepha Hale, an American writer and editor, campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday for 36 years. Lincoln heeded her request in 1863 (see #2).

And yeah, she also wrote “Mary had a Little Lamb.”

4. In the United States, folks eat around 46 million turkeys each year at Thanksgiving. According to the National Turkey Federation, 244 million turkeys were raised in 2010, and roughly one-fifth of those were eaten in one day -- and possibly in sandwiches over the following few days as well.

Ninety-one percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day, and the average weight of a Turkey Day turkey is 15 pounds.

There is hope for a few turkeys, however. Each year -- since the mid-20th century -- the president has “pardoned” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys. The forever-grateful birds are then sent to a farm to live out their days in retirement.

5. The Detroit Lions are as Thanksgiving as cranberry sauce. The first time the Lions played on Thanksgiving Day was in 1934 -- seven years before Congress passed the law that made it a national holiday (before that, the decree came from the president).

Since ’34, there have been only five occasions that the Lions did not play on Thanksgiving. In fact, they’ve been playing on Thanksgiving before games were even televised, which began in 1956.

I’m no Lions fan, but I’ll be watching, and eating, and giving thanks today.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Author’s Note: Information provided by history.com.

Al November 24, 2011 at 04:46 PM
Actually, there was a service of Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation, Charles City, Virginia in the year 1619 - predating the Plymouth Thanksgiving by two years. There is a letter at Berkeley acknowledging this from no less a New Englander than John F. Kennedy. Berkeley is also the birthplace of Ninth President William Henry Harrison.
Chauncey Howell November 24, 2011 at 06:33 PM
Why quibble, or for that matter, gobble? The turkey: preposterous in life and unpalatable in death. I'm having a damp phonebook this year. Tastes just like...no, not chicken...turkey!
Al November 25, 2011 at 01:36 AM
Hmmmmm..... not really sure if your comment is directed to me, but if so, not quibbling at all. Just pointing out an often misinformed piece of American history, i.e., Plymouth is not the "first Thanksgiving in the New World." Not sure even that the Berkeley one is either, just pointing out one example of an earlier Thanksgiving celebration.
Jonathan Gerard November 25, 2011 at 02:49 AM
Why do we even celebrate the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving? The first successful British colony in the New World was at Jamestown, Virginia. The answer is that Jamestown is in the South and we were fighting a Civil War when Thanksgiving became a day of national celebration. Lincoln decided we needed a national holiday to unite the North during the war and he was hardly going to pick a southern settlement to celebrate. And, by the way, imagine a ship captain approaching an unknown foreign shore--seeing a wide beach on the horizon and one huge rock as well. Would you aim for the rock? American history is full of myths.
Al November 25, 2011 at 04:04 AM
Don't disagree with you, Jonathan. It's true that the winners write the history. And there are plenty of times in American history where truth is simply not told correctly for a variety of reasons, some better than others. I don't disagree with your reasoning regarding the national holiday to unite the north, it is a very important reality. I also think that the location of many major publishing houses (i.e., New York, etc.) for many decades and distribution of reading material favoring certain points of view is one way of not getting facts correct. When I lived in Michigan, I served on a board that reviewed textbooks. I was rather appalled when the proposed Michigan state history book had a large photo of Gerald Ford with the caption that he was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That would have surprised him since he was born in Omaha, Nebraska. To tell the truth, the reason I even wrote something today in my first comment was that yet again a story long regarded as fact simply isn't correct. On the other hand, the mythology of the Pilgrim experience and the juxtaposition of key elements of the story does create a more powerful story for the American experience than a thanksgiving celebration in Virginia or any other location than Massachusetts and the Plymouth Bay Colony.
Jonathan Gerard November 25, 2011 at 04:24 AM
Right. "History" isn't the "true story." It is the writer's understanding of what happened. There is no such thing as objective history. As an example, take the Ten Commandments. (Everyone believes in them, though no one knows what they are.) There are two totally different accounts of them in the Bible. One account occurs in Exodus 20 (and is repeated, differently, in Deuteronomy). A totally different account--the only one actually called the Ten Commandments--is outlined in Exodus 34. Or the Civil War. Was it a battle between states rights vs. a strong federal government, or a conflict between an industrial region (and its needs) vs. an agricultural region and its needs, or a war over slavery? Recent research has even challenged the validity of the strongest evidence in criminal trials--the eye-witness account. We create a Moses and a Jesus and a Washington and a Lincoln and a Martin Luther King to fit our own spiritual and political conceptions. We have no idea what any of them were like. Even Thanksgiving, our original topic, is seen by some as a historical holiday, by others as a religious holiday, and by still others as the gateway to Christmas shopping. It's human nature to make things up. And it's human nature to think that what we make up is true and what others believe to be true is just made up.
Al November 25, 2011 at 01:26 PM
Yet another Biblical insight: everybody "knows" that it's three wise men - Why we even know their names! Caspar, Balthasar, Melchior. Problem is, the Bible never claims, never proposes three people. It says, simply, wise men came from the East. Another example: 5,000 were fed in the famous story. However, we almost always forget the little phrase "not counting women and children." So how many were fed according to the story? Reading all of the words and understanding what it's saying, I'd say probably 30 or 40 thousand. I think it would be accurate to say that Truth is always perspectival.
Jonathan Gerard November 25, 2011 at 01:41 PM
And don't forget about the "apple" in the Garden of Eden. (Nope!) But these are not historical narratives. They're stories. We're really talking about the illusive nature of history. Al--I don't have an "objective" point. I have only a subjective point. The difference between the two is what we're talking about.
Al November 25, 2011 at 01:52 PM
Yes, it is.
Al November 25, 2011 at 02:22 PM
To use a simple analalogy, though the reasons are really far more complex, stories have stuff packed on to them over the years and tellings.
Tyler Martin November 25, 2011 at 08:03 PM
I think it has to do with the fact that England's King James I was the primary backer of the Jamestown settlement and the Plymouth settlement was mainly founded on the basis of religious freedom. The motives of protection from persecution, versus colonization and financial gain, fell in line with the idea of America Lincoln was attempting to portray. In addition, Plymouth Rock is symbolic of the settlement. I don't think they literally steered their ship toward it. Thanksgiving could be one of our less rediculous holidays and it is fun to get together with family and friends to eat a good meal. Nothing better than pie for dessert.
Jonathan Gerard November 26, 2011 at 03:10 AM
The biblical story speaks of the "fruit of the tree." It does not name the fruit--which has led to speculation every since. The Latin word for evil is "mallum," which happens also to be the Latin for apple. So the apple came, over time, to be associated with the story. Ages ago I watched Dick Cavett interview Abba Eban, Israel's British born, scholarly, illustrious Foreign Minister. Cavett asked Eban about the fruit, saying "I understand the Bible does not specifically mention "apple." Eban fell right into the trap. Not knowing the Bible so well, he drew on his childhood memory and disagreed with his interlocutor--assuring Cavett that the fruit was, indeed, an apple. (Not!) ;-)
Chauncey Howell November 26, 2011 at 03:28 AM
Apricot! The Fruit of Knowledge had to have been an apricot. There were no apples in the prelapsarian Garden of Eden, which surely must have been in Mesopotamia. Apricots they had! The noble apple had not yet begun its triumphant westward march from its ancestral home, Siberia. The Romans were the ones who really spread the apple around, especially to Brittania, from whence it travelled to our shores, sinless.
Jonathan Gerard November 26, 2011 at 04:46 AM
Willet Thomas November 21, 2012 at 01:45 PM
I'm enjoying reading comments from such learned individuals. Thanks for sharing. Happy Thanksgiving to all.


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