The History of Thanksgiving

Family or friends praying holding hands at Thanksgiving celebration table

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is the kickoff to the holiday season. Tradition tells us the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621. English Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, invited their Native American neighbors to share a meal with them to celebrate a good harvest. The event lasted three days.

Through the years, the day has evolved into a public holiday, complete with parades and other celebrations. Let’s take a look back at Thanksgiving through the years.

What You Might Not Know About Thanksgiving

Here are a few interesting tidbits about this favorite fall holiday.

  • Was turkey always the centerpiece at Thanksgiving dinner?

While today most of us associate Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, that wasn’t the case in the early years. The main entrée was actually venison. Legend has it that five deer were served during that very first gathering. It wasn’t until around 1863 that turkey became the main course.

  • How did Thanksgiving become a public holiday?

George Washington accepted a recommendation from Congress and signed a proclamation designating Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a “Day of Publick Thanksgiving.” It was Abraham Lincoln who, in 1863, named the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to change the date to the second-to-last Thursday in November, but Congress overrode that decision in 1941. Thereafter, the Thanksgiving holiday was designated as the fourth Thursday in November.

  • When did Macy’s start hosting its Thanksgiving parade?

While football can be found on many televisions on Thanksgiving afternoons, it’s the Macy’s parade that often dominates mornings. The parade has been making its way through New York City since 1924. It was originally a 6-mile procession that featured animals from the Central Park Zoo. Once the event started being televised, the route was decreased to 2.5 miles and began featuring balloons, bands, and other entertainers. Felix the Cat was the first balloon to be included in 1927.

  • How much turkey do Americans eat on Thanksgiving?

According to the National Turkey Federation, Americans consume an estimated 44 million turkeys on the big day. The average weight for each bird is 16 pounds. That translates to 704 pounds of turkey in a single day! Other popular holidays on which a bird is served include Christmas and Easter, when 22 million and 19 million pounds of turkey, respectively, are consumed.

  • Which president started the tradition of pardoning a turkey?

While some people attribute this annual event to George H.W. Bush, according to the White House, it actually dates back to the days of Abraham Lincoln. One popular tale is that the president’s son Tad begged his dad to issue a presidential pardon for the turkey destined for the Lincoln family’s Christmas table. Tad argued that the bird had as much a right to live as anyone. Lincoln honored his son’s request and the bird was spared.

One final fun fact about Thanksgiving is the number of calls to the Butterball hotline, also known as the Turkey Talk Line. During the November and December holiday season, experts answer more than 100,000 calls in the United States and Canada.

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