The Secret History of Thanksgiving (Or, Interesting Tidbits to Bring Up If You're Seated Next to Great Aunt Mary)

The Secret History of Thanksgiving (Or, Interesting Tidbits to Bring Up If You're Seated Next to Great Aunt Mary)

Carrie McBride
Nov 22, 2017
Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Mr. Timothy Levy Crouch in Ledyard, Connecticut (1940), Library of Congress
(Image credit: Library of Congress)

Thanksgiving: Pilgrims, Indians, harvest, yadda, yadda, right? From your tender pre-school years of handprint turkeys (perhaps graduating to a construction paper cornucopia), you've been fed the basic narrative of the Thanksgiving holiday. And this narrative has gradually morphed into the modern traditions of turkey, pumpkin pie, football and watching a parade on television. Well, there are plenty of fascinating twists and turns to this holiday and they could come in handy as interesting chit chat if you find yourself seated next to someone you don't know well for the duration of this long meal.

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

The concept of a day of thanks had been celebrated in parts of the the United States (especially New England) for a long time, but it finally became an official holiday after three decades of dogged lobbying by Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale, editor of the popular "Godey's Lady's Book" which she used as a platform to push for a national day of thanks, was the force behind a persistent letter writing campaign to convince state and federal politicians to create a national holiday. Her petitions were mostly ignored until she wrote Abraham Lincoln in September of 1863 and, less than a week later, he proclaimed the last Thursday of November a national day of Thanksgiving.

Touchdown, Yale vs. Princeton, Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 1890 by Frederic Remington (Yale University Art Gallery)
(Image credit: Yale University Art Gallery)

Blame the Ivies for making football an integral part of Thanksgiving

Playing a football match on Thanksgiving day goes back almost as far as the beginning of football in the United States. In just the second year of the Intercollegiate Football Association (comprised of Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton), the colleges agreed to play a championship match each year on Thanksgiving day between the two strongest teams. The winner of the first championship match in 1876: Yale. The annual game was eventually moved to New York City and could attract upwards of 40,000 spectators. The National Football League began holding games on Thanksgiving starting in 1920 and today has three games on the holiday.

That time FDR moved Thanksgiving

Black Friday isn't the first time retailers have tried encroaching on our day of thanks. Under pressure from business owners to increase the number of shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, President Franklin Roosevelt announced in 1939 (a year in which the final Thursday of the month fell on November 30th) that, by executive order, he was moving up Thanksgiving by one week.

Well...that did not go over well. Dubbed "Franksgiving," politicans and the people alike were peeved and half the states in the nation ignored the new date. After a few years of disgruntlement, the date was changed to be the "fourth" Thursday of the November instead of the "final" Thursday.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was originally called the Macy's Christmas Parade
(Image credit: Macy's)

Lions and tigers and bears, oh Macys!

Today, one of the biggest attractions of the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade are the giant balloons, but in the early parades the stars of the show were live animals from the Central Park Zoo including lions, tigers, bears, camels, goats, elephants, and donkeys. The parade was also a lot longer—instead of starting at 77th Street as it does today, it began in upper Manhattan at 145th Street and Convent Avenue—for a total of 5.5 miles.

To Eat the Parson's Nose, or Not to Eat the Parson's Nose, That is the Question

What's your favorite part of a turkey: white meat, dark meat, the pygostyle? Pygo what? The pygostle [pahy-guh-stahyl] is the fleshy, heart-shaped protrusion at the end of a turkey or chicken sometimes called the rump, the turkey tail, the "Parson's nose"or the "Pope's nose." Many cooks consider it too oily to enjoy and discard it, but some consider it a delicacy or a chef's privilege to be eaten in secrecy in the kitchen rather than offered to guests. In some families, especially in the UK, this piece of the bird is fought over much like the wishbone. Commercially discarded turkey tails have long been an export to other countries including Samoa which banned the fatty delicacy for a period of years over obesity concerns.

NSFW: The Turkey Trot

These days a "turkey trot" usually refers to a Thanksgiving day footrace, but a hundred years ago it was a scandalous, indecent dance. It was condemned by the Vatican and Woodrow Wilson was rumored to have not held an inaugural ball for fear revelers would break out into avian-themed cavorting. The Library of Congress blog gives a description of the "lurid" dance steps:

"...four hopping steps sideways with the feet well apart, first on one leg, then the other with a characteristic rise on the ball of the foot, followed by a drop upon the heel. The dance was embellished with flicks of the feet and fast trotting actions with abrupt stops. Dancers were encouraged to also raise and lower their elbows while they danced to imitate the flapping wings of an excited turkey."

Oops, sorry, I forgot to issue a trigger warning. I hope no one fainted.

"Thanksgiving Maskers", circa 1910-1915
(Image credit: Library of Congress via Flickr)


If your mental image of Thanksgiving is of families solemnly seated around a turkey feast, leave it to New York City to insert a more lively, even raucous image. Beginning around the turn of the century and lasting a few decades was the tradition of "Ragamuffin Day." On Thanksgiving morning, children dressed up as paupers and canvassed the city asking (some said haranguing) people "anything for Thanksgiving?" and were sometimes rewarded with a penny or piece of fruit. Over time the tradition was seen by many to be a nuisance. One cranky reader of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote in to complain about this "outrageous imposition on adults".

If the "ragamuffins" are not incipient panhandlers, what are they?...Why compel elderly and frail women to go up and down stairs again and again answering a door bell under penalty of having it constantly rung and rung?...These children are not having harmless fun as you imply. They are bodily and impudently begging from strangers without the excuse of being needy, and learning to be ill bred and inconsiderate. (1931)

You think you have to loosen your pants

The world record for turkey eating is currently held by competitive eater Miki Sudo who gobbled down the most turkey—8.8 lbs in 10 min—at the World Turkey-Eating Competition at Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut on November 21st, 2015. She edged out last year's champ, Joey Chestnut, who had previously downed 9.35 lbs in 10 minutes. Suto may remain the reigning champ indefinitely since Foxwoods no longer puts on the competition.

Turkeys are pretty cool, actually

Okay, these interesting turkey facts might be better to bring up after you've consumed your bird and are chowing down on a piece of pie.

  • Turkeys can make upwards of 20 different calls (the gobble is used by male turkeys to signal dominance and attract females).
  • Turkeys don't have ears. They have small holes near their eyes where sound enters.
  • Because their eyes are placed on opposite sides of its head, turkeys have a super wide field of vision (estimated between 270-300 degrees).
  • Adult turkeys have between 5,000-6,000 feathers on their bodies.
  • A young male turkey is called a jake and a young female is called a jenny.
  • When they need to, turkeys can swim.
(Image credit: Hulu)

"As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly"

Do we have some WKRP in Cincinnati fans in the house? Oh good. If you haven't seen the famous "Turkeys Away" episode, you really must (here it is, on Hulu). As part of an ill-advised Thanksgiving promotion, station manager Mr. Carlson arranges for free, live turkeys to be dropped from a helicopter. Not realizing turkeys can't fly, the birds fall to the ground "like sacks of wet cement" and the promotion turns into a PR nightmare.

So, can turkeys fly? No and yes. Domestic, farm-raised turkeys, bred for consumption, are too heavy and disproportioned for flight, but wild turkeys can fly a mile or more. If you're curious, you can check them out in action in this video.

I hope there have been enough nuggets of Thanksgiving lore here to keep Great Aunt Mary engaged...or put her to sleep. Either way, enjoy the holiday!

Re-edited from a post originally published 11.26.15-CM

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