Learn the history behind your favorite Turkey Day traditions.


Thanksgiving is a holiday rooted in tradition and history. From an early age, we learn about the importance of gratitude and giving back. While these core values are essential to understanding and celebrating Thanksgiving, there's much more history to the holiday than that first pilgrim meal. The kids may be out of school for the week, but that's no reason to stop learning! We've rounded up 15 of our favorite unconventional Thanksgiving facts, from the history of green bean casserole to the surprising roots of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. These fun trivia facts are great for all ages, and your kids will surely bring them back to the classroom when school resumes. So when the conversation slips into that post-dinner lull, prepare your arsenal of Thanksgiving jokes and pepper in a few of these interesting historical tidbits.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Vintage
Credit: George Rinhart/Getty Images

1. The holiday dates back to the 17th century.

The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 over a three-day harvest festival. It included 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians, and historians believe that only 5 women were present.

2. Turkey wasn't always the star of the show.

On the first Thanksgiving table, you wouldn't have found pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, or even turkey. Instead, you may have found venison, duck, goose, oysters, eel, and fish, along with pumpkins and cranberries.

3. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the children's poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb," is largely responsible for Thanksgiving's recognition as a national holiday.

Hale grew up celebrating Thanksgiving, and as the editor of "Godey's Lady Book," she frequently wrote editorials and articles about the holiday. During the Civil War, she urged Americans to "put aside sectional feelings and local incidents" and rally around the unifying spirit of Thanksgiving. For over three decades, Hale lobbied government officials to officially recognize Thanksgiving. Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a fixed national holiday.

4. But not all Presidents were on board.

Before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday on October 3, 1863, each President had to recognize Thanksgiving as a holiday each year. But one President refused. Thomas Jefferson would not declare Thanksgiving a national holiday, as the day involved prayer, and Jefferson firmly believed in the separation of church and state.

5. Harry Truman is frequently credited with being the first president to pardon a turkey, but there's more to the story.

He was the first to receive a ceremonial turkey from the National Turkey Federation – and he had it for dinner.

6. Turkey-pardoning wasn't a formal practice until 1989.

John F. Kennedy was the first to let his Thanksgiving turkey go, followed by Richard Nixon, who sent his turkey to a petting zoo. In 1989, George H.W. Bush formalized the turkey pardoning tradition.

7. The tradition of watching football on Thanksgiving began in 1876.

The original Thanksgiving Day match-up pitted Yale against Princeton. The first Thanksgiving NFL games, however, weren't played until 1920.

8. The inaugural Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was actually meant to celebrate Christmas.

If you treat Thanksgiving as the start of Christmastime, you're not alone. Although the first parade occurred on Thanksgiving, its organizers intended the parade to be a celebration heralding in the Christmas season. The "Macy's Christmas Parade" first occurred in 1924, and over 250,000 people attended. It quickly became a New York tradition and a nationally televised event.

WATCH: 5 Things You Didn't Know About the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

9. The first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloon, Felix The Cat, flew in 1927.

The first giant balloon to float over NYC's streets, Felix the Cat was inflated with helium and—with no plan to deflate the giant balloon—parade organizers simply let him fly off. He popped shortly thereafter.

10. Green Bean Casserole was invented by a Campbell's Soup recipe developer.

Ever wonder how Cream of Mushroom Soup became an essential casserole ingredient? The first green bean casserole was cooked up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, who worked in the home economics department at the Campbell Soup Company. She devised the idea to add frozen green beans to the canned Cream of Mushroom Soup, then topped the whole concoction with crispy onions. And the green bean casserole was born. Today, Campbell's estimates that 40% of Cream of Mushroom Soup sales go to making green bean casserole.

11. Americans collectively eat 45 million turkeys to celebrate the holiday, the average size of which is 16 pounds.

That means that Americans consume about 720 million pounds of turkey on this special day.

12. But don't forget about the sideboard.

With indulgent sides like stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, mac and cheese, and much more, the calories start to add up. Americans consume an average of 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving, and around 159 grams of fat. Let's get our stretchy pants on.

13. What's the price tag of the big meal?

According to the American Farm Bureau, the cost of a classic thanksgiving dinner—which includes turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberries, carrots and veggies, pumpkin pie, milk and coffee—was $48.90 in 2018. For a meal that'll feed 10 people, that doesn't sound too bad.

14. In practice, however, Americans tend to spend a lot more.

CNBC reports that, to build up that sideboard, Americans spend an average of $334 to host around 11 guests for the big meal.

15. Pack up the car.

According to AAA, approximately 54.3 million Americans travel 50 miles or more to celebrate the holiday. Honestly, this is no surprise—we already know that Southerners will go to great lengths to gather together at Grandma's house.