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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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10 Other Mother’s Days from Around the World
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After her mother passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to dedicate a day to her mother, and mothers everywhere. Little did she know, and evidently much to her chagrin, Mother’s Day fast became a commercial phenomenon. Its popularity spread worldwide and many countries, particularly in the Western world, adopted the second Sunday in May as their official Mother’s Day. But not every nation followed suit—perhaps to the chagrin of their local flower companies. In fact, Mother’s Day in many countries has little or nothing to do with Anna Jarvis’s creation, nor does it always occur in May. These are just a few of those other Mother’s Days.

1. UK // MOTHERING SUNDAY, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

The name may sound strikingly similar to its American counterpart, but the origins of Mothering Sunday are quite different. By most historical accounts, it was the Church of England that created Mothering Sunday to honor the mothers of England, and later to commemorate the “Mother Church” in all its spiritual nurturing glory. Hundreds of years ago, Christians were expected to make at least one return to their mother church each year. In other words, Mothering Sunday was the ultimate guilt trip to visit the woman or entity that gave them life. Was that so much to ask? The fourth Sunday of Lent became the designated day to make this journey, and remains the go-to holiday to celebrate Moms to this day.

2. THAILAND // MOTHER'S DAY, AUGUST 12

Her Majesty Sirikit the Queen of Thailand is also considered the mother of all her Thai subjects. In light of her royal maternal status, the Thai government made her birthday, August 12, Thailand’s official Mother’s Day in 1976. It remains a national holiday, celebrated countrywide with fireworks and candle-lighting. In related holidays, Father’s Day in Thailand falls on the current King’s birthday, December 5.

3. BOLIVIA // MOTHER'S DAY, MAY 27

During the struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many of the country's fathers, sons, and husbands were injured and killed on the battlefields. As the history is told to Bolivian students, one group of women from Cochabamba refused to stand idly by; on May 27, they banded together to fight the Spanish Army on Coronilla Hill. Though hundreds died in battle, the legacy of their contributions lives on thanks to a national law passed in the 1920s making the day on which the “Heroinas of Coronilla” took to the streets national Mother’s Day.

4. INDONESIA// MOTHER'S DAY OR WOMEN'S DAY, DECEMBER 22

Made official in 1953 by its president, Indonesia's Mother’s Day falls on the anniversary of the First Indonesian Women’s Congress (1928). The first convening of women in a governmental body is still considered pivotal in launching organized women’s movements throughout Indonesia. The holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of women to Indonesian society.

5. MIDDLE EAST (VARIOUS) // MOTHER'S DAY OR SPRING EQUINOX, MARCH 21

Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin introduced the idea of a Mother’s Day to his home country, and it quickly spread throughout much of the region. Inspired by a story of a thankless widow ignored by an ungrateful son, Amin and his brother Ali successfully proposed a day in Egypt to honor all mothers. They decided the first day of spring, March 21, was most appropriate to celebrate the ultimate givers of life. It was first celebrated in Egypt in 1956, and is still observed throughout the region from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Iraq.

6. NEPAL // MOTHER PILGRIMAGE FORTNIGHT OR MATA TIRTHA SNAN, LAST DAY OF THE MAISHAKH MONTH (USUALLY BETWEEN LATE APRIL AND EARLY MAY)

Stemming from an ancient Hindu tradition, this festival of honoring mothers is still commonly celebrated in Nepal. The holiday honors both the living and the dead equally. Traditionally, those honoring mothers who have passed away make a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds near Kathmandu. A large carnival is also held in the Mata Tirtha village. Children show their mothers appreciation with sweets and gifts.

7. ISRAEL // FAMILY DAY OR THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHER'S DAY, 30TH DAY OF SHEVAT (USUALLY FEBRUARY)

Henrietta Szold never had any children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from touching the lives of many young ones. Szold played an active role in the Youth Aliya organization, through which she helped protect many Jewish children from the horrors of the Holocaust. This earned her a reputation as the “mother” of all children. In the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl named Nechama Biedermann wrote to the children’s publication Haaretz Shelanu proposing they make the date of Szold’s death Israel’s national Mother’s Day. The newspaper readily agreed, as did the rest of the country. Despite the shift to a more gender-balanced Family Day, the holiday’s popularity has waned over the years.

8. ETHIOPIA // MOTHER'S DAY OR ANTROSHT, WHEN THE RAINY SEASON ENDS (OCTOBER/NOVEMBER)

Rather than tying themselves down to a specific date, Ethiopians wait out the wet season then trek home for a large, three-day family celebration. This feast is known as “Antrosht.” Unlike some western Mother’s Days, the mother plays a key role in preparing the traditional meals for the festival.

9. FRANCE // MOTHER'S DAY OR FÊTE DES MÈRES, LAST SUNDAY IN MAY

Celebrating a few Sundays later than the rest of the world feels so, well, French. However, according to one blogger, they may have beat all of us to the punch—sort of. France has a storied history of attempts to create a national Mother’s Day. Napoleon tried to mandate a national maternal holiday at the turn of the 19th century. But things ended up not working out so well for him and his holiday. More than a century later, Lyon held its own Mother’s Day celebration to honor women who lost sons to the First World War. It was not until May 24, 1950 that the Fête des Mères became an officially decreed holiday.

(The holiday is mandated to occur on the last Sunday in May. However, if that Sunday is also the Pentecost, then Mother’s Day is pushed to the first Sunday in June.)

10. NICARAGUA // MOTHER'S DAY OR DÍA DE MADRE, MAY 30

In the 1940s, President General Anastasio Somoza Garcia declared Mother’s Day in honor of the birthday of his mother-in-law. Despite its brown-nosing origins, it remains a big deal in Nicaragua.

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Big Questions
What's the Story Behind Cinco de Mayo?
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Cinco de Mayo, or May 5, is recognized around the country as a time to celebrate Mexico’s cultural heritage. Like a lot of days earmarked to commemorate a specific idea or event, its origins can be a little murky. Who started it, and why?

The holiday was originally set aside to commemorate Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The two had gotten into a dispute after newly-elected Mexico president Benito Juárez tried to help ease the country’s financial woes by defaulting on European loans. Unmoved by their plight, France attempted to seize control of their land. The Napoleon III-led country sent 6000 troops to Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town en route to Mexico City, and anticipated an easy victory.

After an entire day of battle that saw 2000 Mexican soldiers take 500 enemy lives against only 100 casualties, France retreated. That May 5, Mexico had proven itself to be a formidable and durable opponent. (The victory would be short-lived, as the French would eventually conquer Mexico City. In 1866, Mexican and U.S. forces were able to drive them out.)

To celebrate, Juárez declared May 5, or Cinco de Mayo, to be a national holiday. Puebla began acknowledging the date, with recognition spreading throughout Mexico and in the Latino population of California, which celebrated victory over the same kind of oppressive regime facing minorities in Civil War-era America. In fact, University of California at Los Angeles professor David Hayes-Bautista cites his research into newspapers of the era as evidence that Cinco de Mayo really took off in the U.S. due to the parallels between the Confederacy and the monarchy Napoleon III had planned to install.

Cinco de Mayo gained greater visibility in the U.S. in the middle part of the 20th century thanks to the Good Neighbor Policy, a political movement promoted by Franklin Roosevelt beginning in 1933, which encouraged friendly relations between countries.  

There’s a difference between a day of remembrance and a corporate clothesline, however. Cinco de Mayo was co-opted for the latter beginning in the 1970s, when beer and liquor companies decided to promote consumption of their products while enjoying the party atmosphere of the date—hence the flowing margaritas. And while it may surprise some Americans, Cinco de Mayo isn’t quite as big a deal in Mexico as it can be in the States. While Mexican citizens recognize it, it’s not a federal holiday: Celebrants can still get to post offices and banks. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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