Fun Facts about Thanksgiving

Top 5 Facts to Share with Students

As most school children know, our annual Thanksgiving feast dates back to November 1621, when the newly arrived Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans gathered at Plymouth for an autumn harvest celebration.

Like many holidays, our traditions developed over time before becoming what we now enjoy – in other words it’s unlikely that the Pilgrims and Native Americans watched the Macy’s parade of balloons that morning or caught the Lions getting their first humiliation after dinner.

Our Chief Archivist at ThinkFives researched the holiday and has these Top 5 facts that can be shared with your students as Thanksgiving approaches.

No Turkey for You!

America’s bird may not have been on the menu at the first Thanksgiving. Venison, duck, goose, oysters, lobster, eel, and fish were likely served, alongside pumpkins and cranberries (but not pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce!).

Turkey is now synonymous with Thanksgiving. Americans eat 704 million pounds of turkey every Thanksgiving. That’s nearly 50 million turkeys!

According to the History channel, “But it is just as likely that the fowling party returned with other birds we know the colonists regularly consumed, such as ducks, geese and swans.”

“Jingle Bells” was Originally a Thanksgiving Song

“Jingle Bells,” the classic Christmas song written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857, wasn’t meant to be about Christmas. Originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh,” the ditty was meant to be sung on Thanksgiving. When it was reprinted in 1859, however, the name was changed to “Jingle Bells, or the One Horse Open Sleigh,” and was prescribed for Christmas.

Medford, Massachusetts, where sleigh races were popular in the 1800s, claims itself as the birthplace of the song. There is a plaque at 19 High Street, the site of the former Simpson Tavern, where Pierpont was said to have penned the ditty in 1850.

But that’s really not an issue nowadays. With the Christmas season beginning right after Labor Day, we’re sure Jingle Bells can be heard many times during Thanksgiving week.


The First Thanksgiving Was a 3-Day Feast

The first Thanksgiving was organized by Governor William Bradford of Plymouth, Massachusetts, to celebrate the recent immigrants’ first successful corn harvest in the New World.

While we could not find any tweets from that first feast, we do have this account from Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, who wrote:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; … we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.”

No wonder why we celebrate Thanksgiving over a 4-day weekend (for many).

Parade Balloons Originally Were Just Released Into the Air

In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday. It is not surprising then that New York also initiated the first parade, eventually sponsored by Macy’s. Originally noted for its floats, animals and bands, it has become more famous for its balloons.

Parade aficionados probably know that the first large balloon used in the parade was Felix the Cat in 1927, replacing the zoo animals that were used in previous parades. (The bands marching behind them probably complained). Because there were no plans for deflating and storing the balloons, most were simply allowed to float away afterwards. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t prove very effective, as most popped shortly after being released. (Although it would have been interesting to see the reaction of Jersey City when a giant Felix descended on the city).

It Took a Flock to Make a Holiday

So how did the Thanksgiving Holiday begin? It turns out that a number of Americans were involved.

  • First and foremost, we cannot forget the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans. That was in 1621.
  • In 1789 George Washington, as first President of the US, called for a national day of Thanksgiving and prayer in gratitude for the end of the Revolutionary War.

  • Starting in 1847, Sarah Josepha Hale conducted a 17-year campaign of letter and editorial  writing to convince presidents to make the holiday official and annual.  (Trivia bonus point:  She also wrote, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”).
  • In 1863 President Lincoln was one of the recipients of Mrs. Hale’s letters and he concurred. He believed that a country torn apart by a civil war needed such a day. He proclaimed the last Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Day.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt  finalized the date, signing into law the 4th Thursday of the month as Thanksgiving, thereafter.

Do you have Fun Facts to share about Thanksgiving?



  1. You may want to consider re-thinking using the term “first Thanksgiving” to describe the Pilgrims harvest feast as harvest festivals and feasts had been celebrated for many years in different societies around the world including the indigenous people of North America.

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