Four Surprising Facts About Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is only a few days away. And while you may think you know all there is to know about the holiday, history is full of secrets. Let's take a look at four surprising facts about Thanksgiving.

1. These classic Thanksgiving foods were not at the first Thanksgiving

We all have an image of what a "traditional" Thanksgiving meal looks like...and tastes like! But many of the foods we take for granted were not at the first Thanksgiving. First of all, there were no mashed potatoes, since potatoes originated in South America and had not been brought over to North America yet (Lamb, 2020). There were no sweet potatoes, either, since they are native to the Caribbean (Lamb, 2020). The Pilgrims had no way of turning wheat into flour, so bread and gravy were out as well (Julian, 1996; Lamb, 2020). Without sugar, desserts were off the menu, too (Lamb, 2020). No pies or cakes. Most surprisingly, while the first Thanksgiving meal included wild poultry, it may not have included turkey (Lamb, 2020). A Thanksgiving without turkey. Now that's just fowl.

2. The first Thanksgiving lasted for three days

That's right. The first Thanksgiving feast lasted for three days (Julian, 1996). The exact dates are not known, but historians think that the feast took place over a three-day period somewhere between September 21, 1621 and November 11, 1621 (Julian, 1996). That's a lot of mashed pota- Wait, those weren't at the first Thanksgiving. Well, that's a lot of venison and savory corn pudding (Julian, 1996).

3. Thanksgiving's changing date

Nowadays, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November each year. But this wasn't always the case. The first official day of Thanksgiving in America was proclaimed by George Washington, who set the date of the holiday as Thursday, November 26th, 1789 (National Archives, 2012). However, at this time, the day was more of a general time of celebration and an opportunity to give thanks following the end of the Revolutionary War (Washington, 1789). It had no connection to November specifically, and it was not meant to establish an annual holiday (Byron, n.d.). In fact, in 1795, Washington made another proclamation calling for a day of Thanksgiving to be observed in February of 1795 (Byron, n.d.). Thanksgiving was not established as a federally recognized, recurring holiday in November until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared that the final Thursday of every November would be celebrated as Thanksgiving Day (Abraham Lincoln Online, 2018). This tradition continued until 1939, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the second-to-last Thursday in November in an attempt to give Depression-era Americans a little extra time between their Thanksgiving and Christmas shopping (FDR Library, n.d.). This only lasted for two years, however, and in 1941 Congress moved the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November, where it has remained to this day (FDR Library, n.d.). Let's hope no one changes it again!

4. The Origins of Turkey Pardoning

The President of the United States pardoning a turkey each Thanksgiving is probably one of the holiday's silliest traditions. But how did it begin? Well, the origins of this act are a bit muddled. There is a record of Abraham Lincoln sparing a turkey in 1863 (Monkman, n.d.). However, no official pardon was given, and this does not seem to have started the tradition, as no president repeated this action for a century (Monkman, n.d.). Then, in 1963, President Kennedy spared the Thanksgiving turkey that was presented to the White House for Thanksgiving (Monkman, n.d.). Once again, the word "pardon" was not used (Monkman, n.d.). First Lady Patricia Nixon sent the turkey that the White House received for Thanksgiving 1973 to the Oxon Hill Children's Farm (Monkman, n.d.). In the same vein, First Lady Rosalynn Carter sent the turkey that the White House received for Thanksgiving 1978 to the Evans Farm Inn (Monkman, n.d.). It was President George H.W. Bush who finally granted his Thanksgiving turkey a presidential pardon, and the tradition has carried on since then (Monkman, n.d.). I just hope the turkeys don't take it as a license for bad behavior.

So, there you have it: four surprising Thanksgiving facts. But there's still plenty more to learn about the holiday. For more information on Thanksgiving, why not check out our catalog?, opens a new window


Abraham Lincoln Online (2018). Proclamation of Thanksgiving. Retrieved from, opens a new window

Byron, T.K. (n.d.). Thanksgiving. Retrieved from, opens a new window

Castellucci Hospitality Group. (2020, November 9). Castellucci Hospitality Group Thanksgiving spread [Image]. Retrieved from, opens a new window

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (n.d.). The year we had two Thanksgivings. Retrieved from, opens a new window

Julian, S. (1996, November 20). History is served. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from, opens a new window

Lamb, C. (2020, October 5). What food was *actually* served at the first Thanksgiving. Retrieved from, opens a new window

Monkman, B.C. (n.d.). Pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey. Retrieved from, opens a new window

National Archives (2012, November 20). National Archives celebrates Thanksgiving! Retrieved from, opens a new window

Qiao, A. (2019, December 11). [Untitled image of a turkey in front of a calendar]. Retrieved from, opens a new window

Stewart, S. (1984). President Ronald Reagan seems startled as John Hendrick, President of the National Turkey Federation, presents him with the annual Thanksgiving turkey at the White House on Nov. 16, 1984 [Image]. Retrieved from, opens a new window

Washington, G. (1789, October 3). Thanksgiving Proclamation, 3 October 1789. Retrieved from, opens a new window