Thanksgiving Day Facts: Pilgrims, Dinner, Parades, More

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 24, 2009

It may be called Turkey Day, but the U.S. Thanksgiving Day is about more than just the bird. Learn about a holiday myth—the first "real" Thanksgiving wasn't until the 1800s—and how we celebrate Thanksgiving dinner today.

Thanksgiving Dinner's Key Ingredients

Key to any Thanksgiving Day menu is a fat turkey and cranberry sauce.

Some 250 million turkeys were raised in the U.S. in 2009 for slaughter, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Those birds were worth about U.S. $4.5 billion.

About 46 million will end up on U.S. dinner tables this Thanksgiving. (See the Green Guide's suggestions for having a greener—and more grateful—Thanksgiving.)

Minnesota is the United States's top turkey-producing state, followed by North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia, and California.

These "big six" states produce two of every three U.S.-raised birds, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.

U.S. farmers will also produce 709 million pounds of cranberries, which, like turkeys, are native to the Americas. The top producers are Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

The U.S. will also grow 1.8 billion pounds of sweet potatoes—many in North Carolina, California, and Mississippi—and produce 1.1 billion pounds of pumpkins.

Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, and New York are home to most U.S. pumpkins.

But if you overeat at Thanksgiving dinner, there's a price to be paid for all this plenty: the Thanksgiving "food coma." The post-meal fatigue may be real, but the condition is giving turkeys a bad rap.

Contrary to legend, the amount of the organic protein tryptophan in most turkeys isn't responsible for drowsiness.

Instead scientists blame booze, the sheer caloric size of an average feast, or just plain old relaxing after stressful work schedules.

What Was on the First Thanksgiving Menu?

Little is known about the first Thanksgiving dinner in the Plimoth (also spelled Plymouth) Colony in October 1621, attended by some 50 English colonists and about 90 native Wampanoag men in what is now Massachusetts.

We do know that the Wampanoag killed five deer for the feast, and that the colonists shot wild fowl—which may have been geese, ducks, or turkey. Some form, or forms, of Indian corn were also served.

But Jennifer Monac, spokesperson for the living-history museum Plimoth Plantation said the feasters likely supplemented their venison and birds with fish, lobster, clams, nuts, and wheat flour, as well as vegetables such as pumpkin, squash, carrots, and peas.

"They ate seasonally," Monac said, "and this was the time of the year when they were really feasting. There were lots of vegetables around, because the harvest had been brought in."

Traditional Thanksgiving fare that certainly wasn't on the table: potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

If you want to eat like a Pilgrim yourself, try some of the Plimoth Plantation's recipes, including stewed pompion (pumpkin) or traditional Wampanoag succotash.

Where Did Thanksgiving Come From?

American Indian peoples, Europeans, and other cultures around the world often celebrated the harvest season with feasts to offer thanks to higher powers for their sustenance and survival.

In 1541 Spaniard Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his troops celebrated a "Thanksgiving" while searching for New World gold in what is now the Texas Panhandle.

Later such feasts were held by French Huguenot colonists in present-day Jacksonville, Florida (1564), by English colonists and Abnaki Indians at Maine's Kennebec River (1607), and in Jamestown, Virginia (1610), when the arrival of a food-laden ship ended a brutal famine.

(Related: "Four Hundred-Year-Old Seeds, Spear Change Perceptions of Jamestown Colony.")

But it's the 1621 Plimoth Thanksgiving that's linked to the birth of our modern holiday. The truth is the first "real" Thanksgiving happened two centuries later.

Everything we know about the three-day Plimoth gathering comes from a description in a letter wrote by Edward Winslow, leader of the Plimoth Colony, in 1621, Monac said.

It had been lost for 200 years and was rediscovered in the 1800s, she added.

In 1841 Boston publisher Alexander Young printed Winslow's brief account of the feast and added his own twist, dubbing it the "First Thanksgiving."

In Winslow's "short letter, it was clear that [the 1621 feast] was not something that was supposed to be repeated again and again. It wasn't even a Thanksgiving, which in the 17th century was a day of fasting. It was a harvest celebration."

But after its mid-1800s century appearance, Young's designation caught on—to say the least.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863. He was probably swayed in part by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale—the author of the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb"—who had suggested Thanksgiving become a holiday, historians say.

In 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt established the current date for observance, the fourth Thursday of November.

Thanksgiving Turkey-in-Waiting

Each year at least two lucky turkeys avoid the dinner table, thanks to a presidential pardon—a longstanding Washington tradition believed to have originated with U.S. President Harry Truman.

Since 1947 the National Turkey Federation has presented two live turkeys—and a ready-to-eat turkey—to the President, according to federation spokesperson Sherrie Rosenblatt.

"There are two birds," Rosenblatt explained, "the presidential turkey and the vice presidential turkey, which is an alternate, in case the presidential turkey is unable to perform its duties."

Those duties pretty much boil down to not biting the President during the photo opportunity with the press.

In 2008 the vice presidential bird, "Pumpkin," stepped in for the appearance with President Bush after the presidential bird, "Pecan," had fallen ill the night before.

After their presidential encounter, the birds share the same happy fate as Super Bowl winning quarterbacks.

"For the last five years," Rosenblatt said, "They've gone to Disneyland"—living out their days at Big Thunder Ranch in the California theme park's Frontierland.

Talking Turkey

Pilgrims were familiar with turkeys before they landed in the Americas.

That's because early European explorers of the New World had returned to Europe with turkeys in tow after encountering them at American Indian settlements. Indians had domesticated the birds centuries before European contact.

A century later Ben Franklin famously made known his preference that the turkey, rather than the bald eagle, should be the official U.S. bird.

But Franklin might have been shocked when, by the 1930s, hunting had so decimated North American wild turkey populations that their numbers had dwindled to the tens of thousands from a peak of at least tens of millions.

Today, thanks to reintroduction efforts and hunting regulations, wild turkeys are back.

(Related: "Birder's Journal: Giving Thanks for Wild Turkey Sightings."

Some seven million wild turkeys are thriving across the U.S., and many of them have adapted easily to the suburbs.

Wild turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo, can run some 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32 kilometers) an hour and fly in bursts at 55 miles (89 kilometers) an hour. Domesticated turkeys can't fly at all.

Pass the Pigskin

For many U.S. citizens, Thanksgiving without football is as unthinkable as the Fourth of July without fireworks.

NBC Radio broadcast the first national Thanksgiving Day game in 1934, when the Detroit Lions hosted the Chicago Bears.

Except for a respite during World War II, the Lions have played—usually badly—every Thanksgiving Day since.

Consumers Rejoice!

For those who love marching and music, turkey takes a backseat to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, originally called the Macy's Christmas parade because it kicked off the shopping season.

The tradition began in 1924, when employees recruited animals from the Central Park Zoo to join the parade.

Helium-filled balloons made their debut in the parade in 1927 and, in the early years, were released above the city skyline with the promise of rewards for their finders.

The parade, first televised nationally in 1947, now draws some 44 million viewers—not counting the 3 million people who actually line the 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) Manhattan route.

Thanksgiving weekend also boasts the retail version of the Super Bowl—Black Friday, when massive sales and early opening times attract frugal shoppers.

The National Retail Federation reports that some 130 million Americans, give or take a few million each year, brave the crowds to shop on Black Friday or on the following weekend.

Planes, Trains, and (Lots of) Automobiles

It may seem like everyone in the U.S. is on the road on Thanksgiving Day, keeping you from your turkey and stuffing.

But just 33 million of about 308 million U.S. citizens drive more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home on the holiday, according to the American Automobile Association.

If you include airline and rail passengers, more than 41 million Americans will travel at least that distance.

Thanksgiving North of the Border

Cross-border travelers can celebrate Thanksgiving twice, because Canada celebrates its own Thanksgiving Day the second Monday in October.

As in the U.S., the event is sometimes linked to a historic feast with which it has no real ties—in this case explorer Martin Frobisher's 1578 ceremony, which gave thanks for his safe arrival in what is now New Brunswick.

Canada's Thanksgiving, established in 1879, was inspired by the U.S. holiday.

Dates of observance fluctuated, sometimes coinciding with the U.S. Thanksgiving or the Canadian veteran-appreciation holiday, Remembrance Day—and at least once it occurred as late as December.

But Canada's colder climate eventually led to the 1957 decision that formalized the October date.

SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES

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