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10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Thanksgiving

thanksgiving turkey pumpkins white house pardon president

This Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will sit down at the table and gawk over all the goodies they are planning to cram in their gullet. The holiday might seem as familiar as singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the “Seventh Inning Stretch” or packing a finger in ice that was blown off by a firework on the Fourth of July. However, like all traditions based on history and passed down through the ages, its genesis and story has been morphed and changed to fit the times.

In fact, just about every major, hallowed tradition and belief behind “Turkey Day” has either changed completely or developed new traditions and facets in the wake of modern life. Don't worry, none of them are gross or disgusting enough to put you off roasted turkey. We're looking forward to stuffing our face with tasty starches and protein too. To get you ready for the big day (and provide some conversation fodder to break up the awkward silences between courses) here are a few things you might not know about Thanksgiving.

thanksgiving dinner turkey grace family
Dick Luria, Think Stock Photo

Thanksgiving wasn't always celebrated with massive eating binges


When we think about Thanksgiving, the first thing that comes to mind is the massive amounts of good food we're going to consume. Sure there's the whole being with family and catching up with our relatives thing, but that's also why we have a couple of drinks and a giant turkey wing. There was a time when the holiday wasn't synonymous with massive amounts of food, or any food for that matter. Up until the 17th century, Thanksgiving had deeper religious roots and was meant to be more of a time of personal reflection and meditation and that included–gasp!–fasting. Chew over that one (and try not to choke on a wishbone).

sarah josepha hale thanksgiving mary had a little lamb
Public Domain

The modern concept of Thanksgiving was invented by Sarah Josepha Hale


If Thanksgiving seems like some bizarre creation of a 19th century Martha Stewart, that's because it was created by just such a person. Sarah Josepha Hale, a book editor who authored the nursery rhyme 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' stumbled across a passage written by an early American colonist describing a great meal after a successful harvest that featured four massive turkeys that they shared with some Native Americans from the Wanpanoag tribe. She was so inspired by the passage that she filled her magazines with traditional holidays recipes for stuffed turkey and pumpkin pie (even though the passage made no mention of the traditional Thanksgiving fare) and wrote editorials about the need to recognize this “Thanksgiving” day. Her writing inspired numerous embellished stories and paintings featuring the “first Thanksgiving meal.” Hale also relentlessly petitioned President Abraham Lincoln to recognize the day with a federal holiday for five years before the Great Emancipator announced the first official Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863 to establish it as an official holiday.

first thanksgiving pilgrims indians
Think Stock

The entire “Pilgrims eating with the Indians” story is a complete fabrication


Hale may have indirectly inspired a lot of what we now know as Thanksgiving, but as word spread of her push to make the holiday official and homemakers started whipping up her recipes around the holiday, the story behind it also got a little “whipped up.” Even though Hale was inspired by the colonial passage about the grand meal, she makes no mention of the word “Pilgrim” in her petitions to the President or her magazine features or editorials. According to the book “The Turkey: An American Story,” the only thing that comes close to a “Pilgrim” in her stories is an editorial that uses the phrase “The Pilgrim Fathers” to describe the people who helped organize the meal. Other newspapers and magazines latched on to the phrase and embellished the holiday's history. When it finally crept into school textbooks, the legend was born.

Public Domain
Public Domain

Historians can't confirm the first Thanksgiving even happened


Historians don't know much about the first Thanksgiving feast, if there even was an official one, since there were no other recorded instances of colonists sharing a meal with any Native American tribes after harvests, especially since the two groups shared a long history of violence. In fact, the reason the story spread and became so popular is because a giant influx of British, Irish and European immigrants were moving to America and needed to learn about their new home's “peaceful” heritage. So basically, the story is less about commemorating history and more about good public relations.

alcatraz island san francisco california unthanksgiving day
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Native Americans celebrate an “Unthanksgiving Day” every year at Alcatraz


The story of the fabled meal took on such a life of its own that it almost transformed history's view of the colonists' early settlements in America at the detriment of the Native American people and their land. In November of 1969, a small group of Native Americans staged an occupation of Alcatraz Island, the defunct prison in San Francisco Bay, to reclaim “The Rock” for their people and receive government funding to build a cultural complex and a university on their new nation. The movement soon attracted hundreds of supporters on the following Thanksgiving Day and lasted for 19 months until dwindling food supplies and scant electrical power drove most of the protesters away. (The final 15 were removed from the island by force.) An annual “Sunrise Gathering” or “Unthanksgiving Day” as it has been nicknamed has been held on the island every Thanksgiving since to commemorate the protesters' efforts to reclaim their heritage.

thanksgiving turkey president barack oabama pardon
Alex Wong, Getty Images

The Presidential turkey pardon didn't start with Truman


Every year just as we're about to sit down to a big heaping meal of carbs and proteins that could put an elephant into a diabetic coma, the news features a quick 30 second story of the president waving his hands and magically issuing a pardon to a turkey. It has often been reported that this annual tradition started in 1947 under President Harry Truman, but Snopes reports that it's actually not that old of a tradition. The first president to issue an official turkey pardon as we know it started with President George H.W. Bush in 1989 after he was presented with one for the White House Thanksgiving dinner, vowing not to kill the bird for his family's dinner and instead allowing it live the remainder of its life on a nearby farm. The pardoned turkeys are still sent to live on a farm or a petting zoo but they don't last very long since commercially-raised turkeys aren't good at weathering diseases and sickness. Oh, the bittersweet life of a turkey.

turkey thanksgiving gobble
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Not all turkeys “gobble”


Every year around the holidays, kids draw hand outlines and cut them out of construction paper to make turkeys for the refrigerator, all of which have a large “GOBBLE!” written in a word bubble next to their “thumb-like” head. The truth is that only the male turkeys utter the familiar “gobble” sound. According to Field and Stream, male turkeys gobble in order to “assert dominance over one another, to stake out territories, to attract hens and as a reflex or 'shock gobble.'” So in reality, that drawing your kid made of the turkey “gobbling” is really just a picture of a proud male trying to get lucky before he becomes the main course.

turkey eating tryptophan sleepy competitive eating
Joe Kohen, Getty Images

Eating Thanksgiving turkey doesn't actually make you sleepy


When your Uncle Morty passes out at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table after ingesting an entire quarter of turkey and a bottle of wine, the family is often apt to blame it on the tryptophan in the turkey. Thanks to science, however, you know that Uncle Snoozy is really out cold because of the booze (and most likely because he's an alcoholic). While it's true that “purified tryptophan” can make someone sleepy, National Geographic says that the trytophan in turkey isn't powerful enough to put someone to sleep. Tryptophan needs to be ingested on an empty stomach to work as a sleep inducer and even then, the amino acids in the protein are more likely to reach the brain before the tryptophan can take effect. In fact, turkey isn't “unusually high in tryptophan” compared to other foods such as beef or soybeans. No wonder we're so sleepy after a tofurkey binge.

tv dinner

The invention of the 'TV Dinner' came from Thanksgiving


It's important to recognize that not everyone out there will get to enjoy the big, high calorie, cardiac arrest-inducing Thanksgiving dinner that inspires Normal Rockwell paintings and vague feelings of regret. Instead, they'll be lucky to have a frozen turkey dinner roasting in the microwave. Even this staple of American cuisine came from the hallowed Thanksgiving tradition. According to Gourmet Magazine, when the frozen-food company C.A. Swanson & Sons got stuck with 260 tons of turkeys, a salesman got the brilliant idea to freeze the meat along with other side dishes in a foil tray that Pan Am Airlines was testing to serve meals on their flights. The salesman “borrowed” one of the trays and suggested that the tray feature a full Thanksgiving dinner. The first “TV Brand Frozen Dinner” sold in 1954 for 98 cents and came with turkey, cornbread stuffing, peas and sweet potatoes. A dessert was added in 1960.

pumpkin pie libby's pumpkin pie filling

Libby's canned pumpkin pie filling isn't actually made from pumpkin


Of course, what's a Thanksgiving meal without dessert? Libby's, a division of Nestle, seems to have a strange monopoly on the pumpkin pie filling market, but the reason why is even stranger. The “pumpkin” they use to create their traditional pie filling is a special strain they created called “The Select Dickinson” that actually is more closely related to a squash than a traditional pumpkin. It looks nothing like the bright orange pumpkins used to make Jack-o-Lanterns and decorate Thanksgiving displays — it's actually tan on the outside with an orange flesh to give the filling its traditional color. It's also sweeter than the typical orange pumpkin and produces more “meat” for its filling. Also that Cool Whip topping? It's not actually made from cream.

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