Thanksgiving is about more than just great food and family; it’s also one of the most interesting holidays from a historical perspective. Many of the facts that you think you know about the real history of Thanksgiving aren’t quite the way they were portrayed in school plays though. Read on to discover more about the hidden history of Thanksgiving and find out some fun facts about how we celebrate it today.
Thanksgiving Day Was Really a Weekend
The first Thanksgiving at Plymouth wasn’t a one-day event. Like modern Turkey Day fans, they ate leftovers – three days’ worth of them, in fact. The weekend-long feast celebrated an excellent harvest, and the food that the Massasoit and other native Americans brought to the table was a welcome addition to an already bounteous meal, rather than a gift to hungry Pilgrims as is often portrayed. Like most harvest festivals, the event lasted long enough to let all the revelers eat their fill many times over while putting away supplies for the long winter.
The First Thanksgiving Menu Was Different from Today’s
If you imagine the first Thanksgiving as something pretty close to what we eat today, give or take a green bean casserole, think again. Turkey, or at least some kind of poultry, was on the menu, but it played a supporting role to the main dish: venison. According to the Smithsonian, corn porridge or pudding was also on the table, but mashed potatoes were nowhere in sight. If there was stuffing, it was probably whole onions and herbs, not bread; wheat fields weren’t yet well established, so bread-based stuffing, dinner rolls and pie dough weren’t part of the feast. Although the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag probably ate pumpkin during the meal, it wouldn’t have been in a dessert because there was no sugar. The original Thanksgiving at Plymouth could have included fish, oysters and clams, all of which were plentiful.
Traditional Thanksgiving Foods Have a Victorian History
One of the first magazines for homemakers, the Godey’s Lady’s Book encouraged home cooks to be adventurous for important feasts, and Thanksgiving was no exception. Many of the foods we think of as traditional Thanksgiving fare today were exciting novelties to the Victorian palate, including mashed potatoes, jellied cranberry sauce and spiced pumpkin pie. Sarah Hale, the magazine’s editor, was one of the biggest proponents of an established national holiday for Thanksgiving and did her best to popularize the holiday. We still celebrate it today more than 130 years later, so her efforts clearly worked well!
Calories, Not Tryptophan, Are Why You Need a Thanksgiving Nap
Almost everyone loves to take a nap after the big Thanksgiving meal, but most people blame it on the turkey. A naturally occurring amino acid called tryptophan is associated with putting people to sleep, and cooked turkey is high in the compound. Originally, researchers put these two facts together and assumed the tryptophan was putting everyone into a turkey torpor, but it’s really everything you eat, not just the bird, that makes you need a nap. A traditional Thanksgiving meal can contain thousands of calories, and your body has to focus more energy on digesting such a big mouthful. Your brain makes you sleepy, so you’ll stay in one spot and digest.
Football on Thanksgiving Is Older Than You Might Think
When you take that Thanksgiving nap, chances are good that a football game will be on the TV, but the tradition of football on Thanksgiving Day predates television by decades. The first officially recognized NFL season was in 1920, and that year, six games were played on that Thursday. None of the teams from that year are still around, but the Akron Pros beat the Canton Bulldogs 7-0. Today, only three Thanksgiving games are played, but the audience they draw is considerably larger.
Thanksgiving may have come a long way from its roots, but one thing about the holiday hasn’t changed: It’s still a time for gathering to offer gratitude for good company and great food.