The first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621 with the English settlers and the Wampanoag Indians bears little resemblance to our current celebration. Did they feast on turkey? Yes, along with other plentiful fowl and waterfowl. But after that, things get a bit fuzzy. Cranberries weren’t used as a sauce alongside meat for another 50 years. Potatoes weren’t in the diet of the Wampanoag and were mostly unknown by the average 17th-century Englishman, let alone colonists. Surely they ate pumpkin pie, right? Not likely. Pumpkins were prevalent, but early colonists would have found it difficult to come up with the butter and wheat flour necessary to make piecrusts.
Ah, Thanksgiving—from such humble beginnings, our modern-day customs grew. For the facts behind some well-known rituals, savor this sampling of Turkey Day tidbits.
For three days in the fall of 1621, New World settlers from England, in Plymouth Colony less than a year, joined with native Wampanoag Indians to celebrate a successful harvest season. The original Mayflower passenger list of 102 in 1620 had diminished by half after a toll-taking first year of scarcity and sickness, but both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims gave thanks to their respective deities for the fruitful harvest by feasting together and engaging in games and shooting contests.
Sarah Hale, a 19th-century women’s advocate, writer, poet and editor, lobbied ceaselessly for a national day of thanks, publishing numerous editorials urging several U.S. presidents to nationalize Thanksgiving. In 1863, her determination paid off: President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to be held on the last Thursday every November, which Congress changed in 1941 to the fourth Thursday of November.
Contrary to popular belief, it was not Macy’s in New York City but Gimbels department store of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that produced the first-ever Thanksgiving Day parade, a festivity designed to kick off the 1920 Christmas holiday shopping season. Macy’s started its parade in 1924 (then called the Macy’s Christmas Parade), mostly filling it with store employees and animals from the Central Park Zoo. It was renamed the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1927.
Made of rubber and filled with air, the popular cartoon character Felix the Cat became the first Macy’s parade balloon in 1927. Helium came into use the following year. Until 1932, the parade balloons were released into the sky after the parade.
The spectacle became a more prominent part of American culture after footage from the 1946 Thanksgiving parade was featured in the movie “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Up to 3,000 volunteers are needed to control the balloons today, with each balloon handled by a volunteer crew of approximately 50.
After the U.S. government, Macy’s parade is the nation’s second-largest consumer of helium.
Football on Thanksgiving dates back nearly to the infancy of the sport itself, with the Ivy League’s two top teams battling for the Intercollegiate Football Association championship on Thanksgiving Day in New York City beginning in 1876.
In 1925, Red Grange played in his first professional game with the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving, a 0-0 tie against the cross-town Chicago Cardinals after a legendary career at Illinois had turned him into a household name. With Grange’s appearance that afternoon, the status of the then 6-year-old National Football League skyrocketed overnight.
As an annual tradition, nothing outranks the Detroit Lions’ Turkey Day games, which began in 1934. A highlight of the series was the 1962 clash with Vince Lombardi’s defending NFL champion Green Bay Packers, a team that entered Detroit’s Tiger Stadium undefeated but limped out on the losing end of the Lions’ stunning 26-14 upset.
An eyewitness account of the first Thanksgiving by Edward Winslow, an original Mayflower pilgrim and founder of the Plymouth Colony, relates that four men went hunting and brought back large amounts of fowl—likely turkey— venison, duck, goose and swan.
Since various dried and fresh fruits and vegetables—corn, parsnips, collards, carrots, turnips, spinach, cabbage and onions, among others—were plentiful, it is believed that much of that produce made it onto the first Thanksgiving table.
The Etruscans, a fourth-century B.C. Italian civilization, believed the collarbone of a chicken carried good luck. Naturally, others wanted to be the possessor of this good fortune, and so the tradition of the wishbone pull was born. Pilgrim settlers substituted turkey collarbones.
The White House pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey dates back to President Harry S. Truman in 1947, though unofficially Abraham Lincoln is said to have originated the act when he reprieved his son Tad’s pet turkey.