20 Thanksgiving Facts to Liven Up Your Meal

iStock
iStock

If you're one of the 50.9 million people traveling 50 miles or more to spend time with loved ones this Thanksgiving, you may find yourself making small talk with distant family members and in-laws you rarely see. These 20 facts are sure to keep them fascinated until you can escape to the kids' table.

1. THERE'S A CONNECTION BETWEEN THANKSGIVING AND "MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB."

iStock

Writer Sarah Josepha Hale is credited with the 1830 poem "Mary's Lamb," which was eventually turned into the famous children's song. (Whether she was behind the entire poem is still debated.) But although the tune has been a childhood favorite for well over a century, it's arguably not even Hale's most important contribution to the United States. As a native of New Hampshire, Hale had grown up with Thanksgiving festivities and was dismayed that it wasn't federally recognized. When she became editor of Godey's Lady's Book, she used her platform to write editorials and articles about the celebration, and also lobbied the government to declare an official holiday.

Hale used the outbreak of the Civil War to push even harder for a national day of Thanksgiving, thinking that setting aside one day for the entire country “would be of great advantage, socially, nationally, [and] religiously.” Abraham Lincoln agreed, and in 1863 he released an official proclamation that made Thanksgiving the final Thursday in November.

2. NOT EVERYONE THOUGHT THANKSGIVING WAS A GREAT IDEA.

iStock

When Lincoln declared the national holiday again in 1864, a Confederate editorialist from Richmond took the opportunity to insult both the Yankees and the recently re-elected Lincoln, saying: “This is an annual custom of that people, heretofore celebrated with devout oblations to themselves of pumpkin pie and roast turkey.”

3. AND THEN THERE WAS FRANKSGIVING.

Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With only two exceptions, later presidents would follow Lincoln’s tradition of declaring the final Thursday in November Thanksgiving—until 1939, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt bumped it up a week in response to pressure from American retailers. You see, many people don't start holiday shopping until after Thanksgiving, so when the final Thursday coincided with the last day of the month, it cut the holiday shopping season—and sales—short. Though the calendar change made retailers happy, it angered FDR's opponents. Conservative states refused to acknowledge the holiday they referred to as "Franksgiving," continuing to give thanks on the last Thursday of the month. The split continued until a compromise was reached, and FDR signed legislation that made the fourth Thursday official.

4. THOMAS JEFFERSON WASN'T A FAN.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Until Lincoln standardized the date and tradition of Thanksgiving proclamations, presidents were far more haphazard in declaring it. Washington issued Thanksgiving proclamations and Adams issued proclamations for fasting and prayer. But Thomas Jefferson didn’t. At the time, Thanksgiving was very closely tied with religion and prayer, and Jefferson was a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state. In a letter to Reverend Samuel Miller in 1808, Jefferson wrote,

"I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises...Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. ...But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from...civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents."

5. THE FIRST THANKSGIVING FEAST LOOKED A LOT DIFFERENT THAN OURS.

iStock

There was no cranberry sauce, no mashed potatoes, no sweet potatoes—and possibly no turkey. Some historical documents that recorded that first Thanksgiving have survived, so we know the Wampanoag brought deer. Wild turkey may have been part of the menu, but certainly not a focus or a centerpiece like it is today. Instead, they likely dined on passenger pigeons, swan, eel, lobster, clams, and mussels. Side dishes may have included corn, beans, and vegetables like turnips and squash.

6. THERE WERE NO BALLOONS AT THE FIRST MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE.

A black and white picture of an early Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, with a marching band in the foreground and an inflatable balloon of Bullwinkle the moose in the background.
Getty / William Lovelace / Stringer

The 40-to-75-foot brightly colored character balloons are a hallmark of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade these days, but when the parade debuted in 1924, there was not a single balloon in sight. Instead, there were nursery rhyme-themed floats, a visit from Santa Claus, and real animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. The first character balloon—Felix the Cat—was introduced in 1927. The next year, newspapers announced that the helium-filled balloons would be released at the end of the parade. They were fitted with a special release valve so that around a week later they would come back to the ground and members of the public could send them to Macy’s for a reward.

7. THE TIME A SENATOR APPEARED ON THE TONIGHT SHOW DRESSED LIKE A PILGRIM.

Keystone Features/Getty Images

Not everyone believes the first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth. On December 4, 1619, a ship called the Margaret landed in what is now Virginia. Captain John Woodlief documented the day as one that must be celebrated “yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God"—and the settlers did, until many of them were slaughtered by the Powhatan in 1622. More than 300 years later, Virginia Senator John J. Wicker, Jr. spent much of the 1960s pushing his state as the birthplace of the first Thanksgiving, even appearing on The Tonight Show dressed as a pilgrim.

8. WHO'S RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TURDUCKEN?

Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary

John Madden may have popularized the practice of stuffing a chicken into a duck and the duck into a turkey. But he certainly didn't invent the idea of meat nesting dolls. The practice goes all the way back to at least 1774, when an edition of the book The Art of Cookery documented a "Yorkshire Christmas Pie" that involved stuffing pigeon, partridge, fowl, and goose into a turkey. Even more elaborate examples followed, including an 1807 creation called the "roast without equal" by Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière; it included up to 17 different birds. The tradition eventually found its way to New Orleans, which is where Madden enjoyed his first turducken experience. "It smelled and looked so good," Madden told The New York Times in 2002. "I didn't have any plates or silverware or anything, and I just started eating it with my hands.'' He began promoting the dish on-air, and the legend was born.

9. YOU'RE NOT AS GOOD AT CARVING TURKEY AS PAUL KELLY.

A paid of hands carving a turkey surrounded by stuffing.
Getty / John Moore / Staff

Kelly, a British turkey producer, is the Guinness World Record holder, with a warp-speed time of 3 minutes and 19.47 seconds. He also holds the turkey plucking record, besting even Gordon Ramsay: Kelly plucked three birds in 11 minutes, 30.16 seconds, while Ramsay came in a close second at 11 minutes, 31.78 seconds.

10. THANKSGIVING EVE IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST DRINKING NIGHTS OF THE YEAR.

iStock

Forget New Year's Eve. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Blackout Wednesday" is the top drunk-driving night in many parts of the United States. The unfortunate phenomenon is likely due to college students (and other people who are home for the holidays) tying one on with old friends the night before the family gathering. In 2012, Mothers Against Drunk Driving reported that there are more drunk driving deaths at Thanksgiving than at Christmas.

11. "JINGLE BELLS" WAS ORIGINALLY A THANKSGIVING SONG.

We may associate the cheerful song with Christmas trees these days, but when James Lord Pierpont wrote it in the mid-19th century, he likely intended it to be sung at Thanksgiving. The tune was originally called "One Horse Open Sleigh." While the transition from one holiday to the other is a little fuzzy, one thing's for sure—"Jingle Bells" was firmly in the Christmas lineup by December 16, 1965, when astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford played it on a harmonica while in orbit on Gemini 6, making it the first song played in outer space. The pranksters launched into the song after announcing that they had spotted a UFO of some sort.

12. YOUR FAMILY DOESN'T WANT TO TALK POLITICS AT THE DINNER TABLE.

J. Scott Applewhite/Getty Images

According to the 2017 Meyocks Thanksgiving Survey, 36 percent of people say politics should be avoided at Thanksgiving. If you have a relative who won't leave the subject alone, Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, advises that it's best to say, "I would really love to get away from politics at the Thanksgiving table this year."

13. HERE'S WHY THE DETROIT LIONS AND THE DALLAS COWBOYS ALWAYS PLAY ON THANKSGIVING.

Ford Field
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Spoiler alert: It was all a marketing scheme. When the Lions franchise moved to Detroit from Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1934, the citizens of Detroit weren't as excited to get a team as you might think—because they already had one, baseball's Detroit Tigers. In an attempt to get the city excited about its second team, owner George Richards came up with the idea of having a game on Thanksgiving. Because he was well connected, Richards managed to convince NBC to broadcast the game on 94 stations across the U.S. It worked: The Lions filled the stadium to capacity and had to turn fans away at the gate. When the Dallas Cowboys picked up on the marketing scheme in 1966, fans broke the attendance record, and both teams have upheld the Turkey Day tradition nearly every year since.

14. THE WAY WE DEPICT PILGRIMS IS ALL WRONG

A man dressed as a stereotypical pilgrim in black clothing with a buckled hat, carrying a musket.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Stringer

The black outfits, white collars, and buckled hats are all wrong. They dressed in trousers, shirts, and dresses of various colors. Women wore colors like red, earthy green, brown, blue, violet, and grey. Men preferred white, beige, earthy green, brown, and black, but we also have evidence that one of the Elders, William Brewster, wore a red vest and a purple vest. The way the Native Americans are depicted is also misleading: "[They] certainly didn't go around in the chilly New England autumn half-naked," said Laurence Pizer, the former director of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

15. "UNTHANKSGIVING" IS CELEBRATED EVERY YEAR ON ALCATRAZ ISLAND.

Kara Andrade/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, indigenous people and their supporters gather at Alcatraz for a sunrise service where they give thanks for the survival of their people. The event was originally founded in 1975, partially in response to the story we're told about Pilgrims and indigenous people living in harmony. "That's not what happened and we know it," says Andrea Carmen, the executive director of the International Indian Council. But over time, the group has adopted a different outlook. "The message of Unthanksgiving doesn't convey the true feeling of indigenous people," Carmen told the East Bay Express, "which is to give thanks every day for our survival, and the survival of the natural world, and the courage of our ancestors who fought and struggled and resisted to keep our culture alive for us." Now more properly called the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremony, events include traditional dances and a prayer to the rising sun.

16. THERE'S A THANKSGIVING WINE.

A bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau next to a glass that is one-third filled with wine. A man in a suit and tie stands in the background.
Getty / Mario Tama / Staff

Beaujolais Nouveau, a fruity red wine from the Beaujolais region of France, is annually released on the third Thursday of November, also known as Beaujolais Nouveau Day. The release date has become quite the event in Paris, where people have competed since the 1950s to see who can get the first bottles from Beaujolais to Paris. Marketers in the U.S. have used the November release date to pair the wine with the holiday, recommending Beaujolais as a terrific match for turkey.

17. BUTTERBALL ISN'T THE ONLY TURKEY HOTLINE YOU CAN CALL.

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The Butterball Turkey Talk-Line is famous for the calls it gets from uncertain cooks on Thanksgiving. But 1-800-BUTTERBALL isn't the only game in town. If you can't reach any of the 50+ Butterball experts, you can also call the following numbers:

  • The U.S. Department of Meat and Poultry Hotline: (888) 674-6854, open until 2 on Thanksgiving
  • Honeysuckle White Turkey Line: (800) 810-6325
  • Perdue Chicken Customer Service Hotline: (800) 473-7383, open until 3 on Thanksgiving

18. BACK IN THE DAY, YOU COULD HAVE JUST CALLED JULIA CHILD.

Julia Child, wearing a flowered blouse, sits in her kitchen, which has been reassembled at the Smithsonian Museum.
Getty / Tim Sloan / Staff

Who needs a turkey hot line when you have Julia Child herself as a resource? During the 1970s and '80s, Child's number was publicly listed in the phone book, so enterprising home chefs took it upon themselves to dial her digits when they were having cooking troubles on Thanksgiving. Though she could have left her number unlisted or simply unplugged her phone on high-traffic days, Child refused. She always answered the phone, and, most of the time, she just told them whatever they needed to hear so they could chill out and enjoy their holidays, including to simply serve the turkey cold.

19. THE MOST POPULAR SIDE DISHES MAY SURPRISE YOU.

iStock

Google recently released the 2017 list of the most popular Thanksgiving side dishes in every state, and while favorites like stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes, and pecan pie make many lists, there are also a few surprises. If you live in South Dakota or Oregon, don't be surprised to find Ambrosia salad on the table. Ohio is particularly fond of seven-layer salad, while sausage stuffing is on the menu in Connecticut. Arizona prefers pumpkin roll, while New York can't do without acorn squash.

20. BLACK FRIDAY ISN'T NAMED FOR THE DAY BUSINESSES GOT BACK INTO THE BLACK.

Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

You've probably heard the tale that the massive amounts of shopping that take place on Black Friday is the day that many businesses finally make the financial flip from being in the red to being in the black. In reality, the term dates back to the 1950s, when the Philadelphia police used it to refer to the day after Thanksgiving, which was also the day before the annual Army-Navy football game. Local retailers tried to take advantage of the crowds by having sales and calling it “Big Friday,” which resulted in utter madness in the stores. People took advantage of the craziness to shoplift, so between the extra traffic, crowd control, and arrests, the police were not too happy about having to work some pretty serious overtime—hence the name. By the 1980s, the discounts and super sales started creeping across the nation.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?

iStock
iStock

Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER