20 Thanksgiving Facts to Liven Up Your Meal

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If you're one of the 50.9 million people traveling 50 miles or more to spend time with loved ones this Thanksgiving, you may find yourself making small talk with distant family members and in-laws you rarely see. These 20 facts are sure to keep them fascinated until you can escape to the kids' table.

1. THERE'S A CONNECTION BETWEEN THANKSGIVING AND "MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB."

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Writer Sarah Josepha Hale is credited with the 1830 poem "Mary's Lamb," which was eventually turned into the famous children's song. (Whether she was behind the entire poem is still debated.) But although the tune has been a childhood favorite for well over a century, it's arguably not even Hale's most important contribution to the United States. As a native of New Hampshire, Hale had grown up with Thanksgiving festivities and was dismayed that it wasn't federally recognized. When she became editor of Godey's Lady's Book, she used her platform to write editorials and articles about the celebration, and also lobbied the government to declare an official holiday.

Hale used the outbreak of the Civil War to push even harder for a national day of Thanksgiving, thinking that setting aside one day for the entire country “would be of great advantage, socially, nationally, [and] religiously.” Abraham Lincoln agreed, and in 1863 he released an official proclamation that made Thanksgiving the final Thursday in November.

2. NOT EVERYONE THOUGHT THANKSGIVING WAS A GREAT IDEA.

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When Lincoln declared the national holiday again in 1864, a Confederate editorialist from Richmond took the opportunity to insult both the Yankees and the recently re-elected Lincoln, saying: “This is an annual custom of that people, heretofore celebrated with devout oblations to themselves of pumpkin pie and roast turkey.”

3. AND THEN THERE WAS FRANKSGIVING.

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With only two exceptions, later presidents would follow Lincoln’s tradition of declaring the final Thursday in November Thanksgiving—until 1939, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt bumped it up a week in response to pressure from American retailers. You see, many people don't start holiday shopping until after Thanksgiving, so when the final Thursday coincided with the last day of the month, it cut the holiday shopping season—and sales—short. Though the calendar change made retailers happy, it angered FDR's opponents. Conservative states refused to acknowledge the holiday they referred to as "Franksgiving," continuing to give thanks on the last Thursday of the month. The split continued until a compromise was reached, and FDR signed legislation that made the fourth Thursday official.

4. THOMAS JEFFERSON WASN'T A FAN.

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Until Lincoln standardized the date and tradition of Thanksgiving proclamations, presidents were far more haphazard in declaring it. Washington issued Thanksgiving proclamations and Adams issued proclamations for fasting and prayer. But Thomas Jefferson didn’t. At the time, Thanksgiving was very closely tied with religion and prayer, and Jefferson was a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state. In a letter to Reverend Samuel Miller in 1808, Jefferson wrote,

"I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises...Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. ...But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from...civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents."

5. THE FIRST THANKSGIVING FEAST LOOKED A LOT DIFFERENT THAN OURS.

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There was no cranberry sauce, no mashed potatoes, no sweet potatoes—and possibly no turkey. Some historical documents that recorded that first Thanksgiving have survived, so we know the Wampanoag brought deer. Wild turkey may have been part of the menu, but certainly not a focus or a centerpiece like it is today. Instead, they likely dined on passenger pigeons, swan, eel, lobster, clams, and mussels. Side dishes may have included corn, beans, and vegetables like turnips and squash.

6. THERE WERE NO BALLOONS AT THE FIRST MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE.

A black and white picture of an early Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, with a marching band in the foreground and an inflatable balloon of Bullwinkle the moose in the background.
Getty / William Lovelace / Stringer

The 40-to-75-foot brightly colored character balloons are a hallmark of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade these days, but when the parade debuted in 1924, there was not a single balloon in sight. Instead, there were nursery rhyme-themed floats, a visit from Santa Claus, and real animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. The first character balloon—Felix the Cat—was introduced in 1927. The next year, newspapers announced that the helium-filled balloons would be released at the end of the parade. They were fitted with a special release valve so that around a week later they would come back to the ground and members of the public could send them to Macy’s for a reward.

7. THE TIME A SENATOR APPEARED ON THE TONIGHT SHOW DRESSED LIKE A PILGRIM.

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Not everyone believes the first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth. On December 4, 1619, a ship called the Margaret landed in what is now Virginia. Captain John Woodlief documented the day as one that must be celebrated “yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God"—and the settlers did, until many of them were slaughtered by the Powhatan in 1622. More than 300 years later, Virginia Senator John J. Wicker, Jr. spent much of the 1960s pushing his state as the birthplace of the first Thanksgiving, even appearing on The Tonight Show dressed as a pilgrim.

8. WHO'S RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TURDUCKEN?

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John Madden may have popularized the practice of stuffing a chicken into a duck and the duck into a turkey. But he certainly didn't invent the idea of meat nesting dolls. The practice goes all the way back to at least 1774, when an edition of the book The Art of Cookery documented a "Yorkshire Christmas Pie" that involved stuffing pigeon, partridge, fowl, and goose into a turkey. Even more elaborate examples followed, including an 1807 creation called the "roast without equal" by Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière; it included up to 17 different birds. The tradition eventually found its way to New Orleans, which is where Madden enjoyed his first turducken experience. "It smelled and looked so good," Madden told The New York Times in 2002. "I didn't have any plates or silverware or anything, and I just started eating it with my hands.'' He began promoting the dish on-air, and the legend was born.

9. YOU'RE NOT AS GOOD AT CARVING TURKEY AS PAUL KELLY.

A paid of hands carving a turkey surrounded by stuffing.
Getty / John Moore / Staff

Kelly, a British turkey producer, is the Guinness World Record holder, with a warp-speed time of 3 minutes and 19.47 seconds. He also holds the turkey plucking record, besting even Gordon Ramsay: Kelly plucked three birds in 11 minutes, 30.16 seconds, while Ramsay came in a close second at 11 minutes, 31.78 seconds.

10. THANKSGIVING EVE IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST DRINKING NIGHTS OF THE YEAR.

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Forget New Year's Eve. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Blackout Wednesday" is the top drunk-driving night in many parts of the United States. The unfortunate phenomenon is likely due to college students (and other people who are home for the holidays) tying one on with old friends the night before the family gathering. In 2012, Mothers Against Drunk Driving reported that there are more drunk driving deaths at Thanksgiving than at Christmas.

11. "JINGLE BELLS" WAS ORIGINALLY A THANKSGIVING SONG.

We may associate the cheerful song with Christmas trees these days, but when James Lord Pierpont wrote it in the mid-19th century, he likely intended it to be sung at Thanksgiving. The tune was originally called "One Horse Open Sleigh." While the transition from one holiday to the other is a little fuzzy, one thing's for sure—"Jingle Bells" was firmly in the Christmas lineup by December 16, 1965, when astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford played it on a harmonica while in orbit on Gemini 6, making it the first song played in outer space. The pranksters launched into the song after announcing that they had spotted a UFO of some sort.

12. YOUR FAMILY DOESN'T WANT TO TALK POLITICS AT THE DINNER TABLE.

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According to the 2017 Meyocks Thanksgiving Survey, 36 percent of people say politics should be avoided at Thanksgiving. If you have a relative who won't leave the subject alone, Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, advises that it's best to say, "I would really love to get away from politics at the Thanksgiving table this year."

13. HERE'S WHY THE DETROIT LIONS AND THE DALLAS COWBOYS ALWAYS PLAY ON THANKSGIVING.

Ford Field
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Spoiler alert: It was all a marketing scheme. When the Lions franchise moved to Detroit from Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1934, the citizens of Detroit weren't as excited to get a team as you might think—because they already had one, baseball's Detroit Tigers. In an attempt to get the city excited about its second team, owner George Richards came up with the idea of having a game on Thanksgiving. Because he was well connected, Richards managed to convince NBC to broadcast the game on 94 stations across the U.S. It worked: The Lions filled the stadium to capacity and had to turn fans away at the gate. When the Dallas Cowboys picked up on the marketing scheme in 1966, fans broke the attendance record, and both teams have upheld the Turkey Day tradition nearly every year since.

14. THE WAY WE DEPICT PILGRIMS IS ALL WRONG

A man dressed as a stereotypical pilgrim in black clothing with a buckled hat, carrying a musket.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Stringer

The black outfits, white collars, and buckled hats are all wrong. They dressed in trousers, shirts, and dresses of various colors. Women wore colors like red, earthy green, brown, blue, violet, and grey. Men preferred white, beige, earthy green, brown, and black, but we also have evidence that one of the Elders, William Brewster, wore a red vest and a purple vest. The way the Native Americans are depicted is also misleading: "[They] certainly didn't go around in the chilly New England autumn half-naked," said Laurence Pizer, the former director of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

15. "UNTHANKSGIVING" IS CELEBRATED EVERY YEAR ON ALCATRAZ ISLAND.

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Every year, indigenous people and their supporters gather at Alcatraz for a sunrise service where they give thanks for the survival of their people. The event was originally founded in 1975, partially in response to the story we're told about Pilgrims and indigenous people living in harmony. "That's not what happened and we know it," says Andrea Carmen, the executive director of the International Indian Council. But over time, the group has adopted a different outlook. "The message of Unthanksgiving doesn't convey the true feeling of indigenous people," Carmen told the East Bay Express, "which is to give thanks every day for our survival, and the survival of the natural world, and the courage of our ancestors who fought and struggled and resisted to keep our culture alive for us." Now more properly called the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, events include traditional dances and a prayer to the rising sun.

16. THERE'S A THANKSGIVING WINE.

A bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau next to a glass that is one-third filled with wine. A man in a suit and tie stands in the background.
Getty / Mario Tama / Staff

Beaujolais Nouveau, a fruity red wine from the Beaujolais region of France, is annually released on the third Thursday of November, also known as Beaujolais Nouveau Day. The release date has become quite the event in Paris, where people have competed since the 1950s to see who can get the first bottles from Beaujolais to Paris. Marketers in the U.S. have used the November release date to pair the wine with the holiday, recommending Beaujolais as a terrific match for turkey.

17. BUTTERBALL ISN'T THE ONLY TURKEY HOTLINE YOU CAN CALL.

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The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is famous for the calls it gets from uncertain cooks on Thanksgiving. But 1-800-BUTTERBALL isn't the only game in town. If you can't reach any of the 50+ Butterball experts, you can also call the following numbers:

  • The U.S. Department of Meat and Poultry Hotline: (888) 674-6854, open until 2 on Thanksgiving
  • Honeysuckle White Turkey Line: (800) 810-6325
  • Perdue Chicken Customer Service Hotline: (800) 473-7383, open until 3 on Thanksgiving

18. BACK IN THE DAY, YOU COULD HAVE JUST CALLED JULIA CHILD.

Julia Child, wearing a flowered blouse, sits in her kitchen, which has been reassembled at the Smithsonian Museum.
Getty / Tim Sloan / Staff

Who needs a turkey hot line when you have Julia Child herself as a resource? During the 1970s and '80s, Child's number was publicly listed in the phone book, so enterprising home chefs took it upon themselves to dial her digits when they were having cooking troubles on Thanksgiving. Though she could have left her number unlisted or simply unplugged her phone on high-traffic days, Child refused. She always answered the phone, and, most of the time, she just told them whatever they needed to hear so they could chill out and enjoy their holidays, including to simply serve the turkey cold.

19. THE MOST POPULAR SIDE DISHES MAY SURPRISE YOU.

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Google recently released the 2017 list of the most popular Thanksgiving side dishes in every state, and while favorites like stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes, and pecan pie make many lists, there are also a few surprises. If you live in South Dakota or Oregon, don't be surprised to find Ambrosia salad on the table. Ohio is particularly fond of seven-layer salad, while sausage stuffing is on the menu in Connecticut. Arizona prefers pumpkin roll, while New York can't do without acorn squash.

20. BLACK FRIDAY ISN'T NAMED FOR THE DAY BUSINESSES GOT BACK INTO THE BLACK.

Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

You've probably heard the tale that the massive amounts of shopping that take place on Black Friday is the day that many businesses finally make the financial flip from being in the red to being in the black. In reality, the term dates back to the 1950s, when the Philadelphia police used it to refer to the day after Thanksgiving, which was also the day before the annual Army-Navy football game. Local retailers tried to take advantage of the crowds by having sales and calling it “Big Friday,” which resulted in utter madness in the stores. People took advantage of the craziness to shoplift, so between the extra traffic, crowd control, and arrests, the police were not too happy about having to work some pretty serious overtime—hence the name. By the 1980s, the discounts and super sales started creeping across the nation.

Why Mother's Day Founder Anna Jarvis Later Fought to Have the Holiday Abolished

A portrait of Mother's Day founder Anna Jarvis.
A portrait of Mother's Day founder Anna Jarvis.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Years after she founded Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis was dining at the Tea Room at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. She saw they were offering a "Mother’s Day Salad." She ordered the salad and when it was served, she stood up, dumped it on the floor, left the money to pay for it, and walked out in a huff. Jarvis had lost control of the holiday she helped create, and she was crushed by her belief that commercialism was destroying Mother’s Day.

During the Civil War, Anna's mother, Ann Jarvis, cared for the wounded on both sides of the conflict. She also tried to orchestrate peace between Union and Confederate moms by forming a Mother's Friendship Day. When the elder Jarvis passed away in 1905, her daughter was devastated. She would read the sympathy cards and letters over and over, taking the time to underline all the words that praised and complimented her mother. Jarvis found an outlet to memorialize her mother by working to promote a day that would honor all mothers.

On May 10, 1908, Mother's Day events were held at the church where Ann Jarvis taught Sunday School in Grafton, West Virginia, and at the Wanamaker’s department store auditorium in Philadelphia. Anna did not attend the event in Grafton, but she sent 500 white carnations—her mother’s favorite flower. The carnations were to be worn by sons and daughters in honor of their own mothers, and to represent the purity of a mother’s love.

Spreading the Word

Mother’s Day quickly caught on because of Anna Jarvis’s zealous letter-writing and promotional campaigns across the country and the world. She was assisted by well-heeled backers like John Wanamaker and H.J. Heinz, and she soon devoted herself full-time to the promotion of Mother’s Day.

In 1909 several senators mocked the very idea of a Mother’s Day holiday. Senator Henry Moore Teller (D-CO) scorned the resolution as "puerile," "absolutely absurd," and "trifling." He announced, "Every day with me is a mother's day." Senator Jacob Gallinger (R-NH) judged the very idea of Mother's Day to be an insult, as though his memory of his late mother "could only be kept green by some outward demonstration on Sunday, May 10."

A pile of white carnations
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The backlash didn't deter Jarvis. She enlisted the help of organizations like the World’s Sunday School Association, and the holiday sailed through Congress with little opposition in 1914.

The floral industry wisely supported Jarvis’s Mother’s Day movement. She accepted their donations and spoke at their conventions. With each subsequent Mother’s Day, the wearing of carnations became a must-have item. Florists across the country quickly sold out of white carnations around Mother’s Day; newspapers reported stories of carnation hoarding and profiteering. The floral industry later came up with an idea to diversify sales by promoting the practice of wearing red or bright flowers in honor of living mothers, and white flowers for deceased moms.

"Sentiment, Not Profit"

Jarvis soon soured on the commercial interests associated with the day. She wanted Mother’s Day “to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” Beginning around 1920, she urged people to stop buying flowers and other gifts for their mothers, and she turned against her former commercial supporters. She referred to the florists, greeting card manufacturers and the confectionery industry as “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, and truest movements and celebrations.”

In response to the floral industry, she had thousands of celluloid buttons made featuring the white carnation, which she sent free of charge to women’s, school, and church groups. She attempted to stop the floral industry by threatening to file lawsuits and by applying to trademark the carnation together with the words “Mother’s Day” (though she was denied the trademark). In response to her legal threats, the Florist Telegraph Delivery (FTD) association offered her a commission on the sales of Mother’s Day carnations, but this only further enraged her.

Jarvis’s attempts to stop the florists’ promotion of Mother’s Day with carnations continued. In 1934, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Mother’s Day. They used a painting colloquially known as Whistler’s Mother for the image, by artist James Whistler. Jarvis was livid after she saw the resulting stamp because she believed the addition of the vase of carnations was an advertisement for the floral industry.

A young girl gives her mom a handmade Mother's Day card
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Jarvis’s ideal observance of Mother’s Day would be a visit home or writing a long letter to your mother. She couldn’t stand those who sold and used greeting cards: “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.”

She added: “Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”

Going Rogue

Jarvis fought against charities that used Mother’s Day for fundraising. She was dragged screaming out of a meeting of the American War Mothers by police and arrested for disturbing the peace in her attempts to stop the sale of carnations. She even wrote screeds against Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise money (for charities that worked to combat high maternal and infant mortality rates, the very type of work Jarvis’s mother did during her lifetime).

In one of her last appearances in public, Jarvis was seen going door-to-door in Philadelphia, asking for signatures on a petition to rescind Mother’s Day. In her twilight years, she became a recluse and a hoarder.

Jarvis spent her last days deeply in debt and living in the Marshall Square Sanitarium, a now-closed mental asylum in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She died on November 24, 1948. Jarvis was never told that her bill for her time at the asylum was partly paid for by a group of grateful florists.

This story originally appeared in 2012.

7 Mother's Day Sales to Take Advantage of Before the Holiday

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Still trying to figure out what to buy your mom for Mother's Day this year? Before May 12 rolls around, check out these sales that will help you get mom the perfect gift for less. And if you've already bought your mom a gift, well, there's no harm in getting yourself one, too.

1. Sur La Table

If your mom loves to cook and host, head to Sur La Table. The kitchen store is offering 20 percent off Staub cast iron cookware until May 13. It's also got longer-running sales as well—until May 20, you can get up to 70 percent off Sur La Table private label cookware and up to 40 percent off Nordic Ware bakeware. Nothing says Mother's Day like a new set of cake pans or a cast iron cocotte. (Don't be afraid to pick up a new set of dishes for yourself, too—we're sure your mom wouldn't mind.)

Find it: Sur La Table

2. Overstock.com

In advance of Mother's Day, Overstock.com is offering discounts on watches, jewelry, footwear, and more with mom in mind. Personally, we'd like to gift our mothers one of these amazingly whimsical cat watches, but for moms with more highbrow taste, there are plenty of other elegant options on deep discount. 

Find it: Overstock.com

3. Today Is Art Day

For moms who love art, science, and history, Today Is Art Day's collectible figurines offer a way to show off her favorite icons. She can prop the likenesses of Frida Kahlo, Gustav Klimt, Marie Curie, and more on her desk, or grab the brand's art-museum-themed board game for some family fun. You can get 15 percent off your purchase using the code MOTHER until May 12.

Find it: Today Is Art Day

4. Macy's

Macy's wellness-focused Goodfull brand has a lot of mom-worthy items on sale right now, including cookware, knives, kitchen appliances (we can't resist a KitchenAid stand mixer), plate sets, bed and bath products, and more. We are especially tempted by the Aerogarden countertop herb garden kit, which features automatic LED lighting and watering reminders. It's $110 off through May 12. You can also get an extra 10 to 20 percent off select sale items with the code MOM.

Find it: Macy's

5. Coach

If your mom is a fashion maven, Coach is offering significant discounts on bags, shoes, and other fashionable goods for the holiday. (While we don't exactly recommend spending more than $100 buying your mom a luxury leather keychain in the shape of a weiner dog, we also wouldn't hate it.) Use the code MOM19 to get up to 30 percent off.

Find it: Coach

6. Amazon

Whether your mom is an Alexa acolyte or a smart home skeptic, Amazon's probably got a device on sale for her. The rarely-on-sale, wildly popular Kindle Paperwhite is $40 off right now (just $90 for the most basic version). The regular Kindle (which has a lower-resolution screen and no backlight) is also on sale starting at $70. Amazon is also offering deals on Kindle Fire tablets, Ring Alarm systems, Echo smart speakers, and more.

Find it: Amazon

7. CompetitiveCyclist.com

Whether your mom is a weekend warrior or just likes to take the occasional group ride, you can get great deals on cycling gear and equipment from CompetitiveCyclist.com. With bikes, apparel, and accessories targeted at road cyclists, mountain bikers, and triathlon athletes, there's plenty to choose from. Get mom some waterproof apparel for her spring rides, invest in some nice sunglasses for her summer workouts, or go ahead and help her upgrade to her dream bike. Use the code 21VERONA for 21 percent off full-price items from now until June 2.

Find it: CompetitiveCyclist.com

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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