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The Fascinating History Behind 5 of the Most Beloved Thanksgiving Day Traditions
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The Fascinating History Behind 5 of the Most Beloved Thanksgiving Day Traditions

Thanksgiving Day is a holiday that is filled with countless traditions that are widely shared by millions of Americans, but how much do you really know about the history behind some of the most common and revered customs?

From cranberry sauce and turkey to parades and football, the annual foods and activities that millions of Americans partake in each year have deep and robust roots, with each being worthy of historical exploration.

TheBlaze chose just five of these popular cultural practices to provide you with some brief history and thought-provoking informational tidbits. Enjoy them, below:

Why Turkey?

Turkey is a fixture at most Americans’ Thanksgiving tables, but where, exactly, did this tradition originate?

A definitive history is difficult to pin down, but many historians believe the bird didn’t actually enjoy a place at the original Thanksgiving feast between the Pilgrims and Native Americans back in 1621.

While poultry of some sort might have been served, turkey was not mentioned in historical accounts of the meal between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. Venison, though, was on the menu, along with other foods of the day.

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The Oregonian noted that, while we can’t be sure of when the turkey came into the mix, there is one key figure who advocated for the bird to be served on Thanksgiving — Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879).

Not only did Hale, a well-known writer (she penned “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” among other works), urge families to adopt certain foods like turkey, but she was also the driving force behind pushing the U.S. government to adopt Thanksgiving as an official holiday.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln obliged — and here we are today.

Where Did the Cranberry Sauce Originate

Love cranberry sauce or hate it, but that sweet desert (or relish — depending on how you consume it) has become quite the Thanksgiving commodity. While Mental Floss noted that cranberries were very present in America and easy to access, the Pilgrims likely were’t devouring the commodity.

Why, you ask?

Considering that sugar — a key component of cranberry sauce — was a luxury item when the first Thanksgiving unfolded, the jam was likely pretty expensive at the time.

Photo credit: Liz Klimas/TheBlaze Photo credit: Liz Klimas/TheBlaze

It’s unclear when the sauce was even created, although Mental Floss claimed that it was in 1663 — decades after the supposed first Thanksgiving — that people began commenting about a sweet sauce that was made from cranberries.

But if you’re thinking about the modern-day canned cranberry sauce that many revere today, that’s actually brought to you by Ocean Spray, a company that began selling the product in the early 1900s.

It’s unclear when, definitively speaking, cranberries officially became a Thanksgiving meal fixture, however The New Jersey Star-Ledger reported that, “Cranberries officially became a part of the national Thanksgiving tradition in 1864, when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberries be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal.”

Whether it was widely used before that remains a mystery.

Cracking the Wishbone

One of the more curious traditions for many families is the debate over who gets to crack the Thanksgiving Day turkey’s wishbone (also known as a furcula).

The wishbone is often taken from the turkey’s carcass and dried out. Then, family members battle it out for the opportunity to crack it in half — and whomever gets the bigger piece assumes that his or her secret wish will be granted.

As it turns out, this practice may have a deep history. Mental Floss explained that this tradition actually dates back thousands of years and that it comes from a variety of ancient civilizations who passed it on to one another — and eventually to Americans.

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“The custom of snapping these bones in two after dinner came to us from the English, who got it from the Romans, who got it from the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization,” Mental Floss explained.

The Etruscans apparently thought chickens were oracles, so they used the birds in an attempt to predict the future. After a chicken was killed, it was laid out to dry so that citizens still had access to its alleged powers.

The wishbone was then picked up, stroked and revered; people allegedly made wishes on it, hence giving it its current name. In Medieval Europe, though, a Knoxville News Sentinel columnist said that a goose bone was used instead.

The Macy’s Parade

For many families, watching the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” is an annual tradition. While most Americans tune in on television, millions of others flock to the streets in New York City each year to experience the procession in person.

The parade started 91 years ago and has been a staple of the Thanksgiving holiday ever since. It was in 1924 that the parade — originally called the “Macy’s Christmas Parade” and started by company employees — first kicked off.

Rather than using giant floats, live animals from Central Park Zoo were marched through New York City’s streets, a Macy’s history timeline recounts. By 1927, though, Macy’s was already using floats.

Police officers ride motorcycles while leading the start of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Police officers ride motorcycles while leading the start of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The event became so popular that the company decided to make it an annual tradition. But when war struck in 1942, the parade was put on a hiatus until 1944 due to a national helium shortage. The balloons were donated to the U.S. government at the time to offer up scrap rubber.

When WWII ended, though, the tradition simply grew in popularity, with Macy’s claiming that up to 3.5 million people now arrive in person to see the floats each year, with an additional 50 million watching on their television screens.


For many, turkey and football go hand in hand. As much as Thanksgiving is about acknowledging what one has been given, it is also about tuning in — or even playing — one of the nation’s most popular sports.

According to The Pro Football Hall of Fame, Thanksgiving Day football was once a tradition among colleges and high schools, but that practice has since subsided and the NFL has picked up the torch. The modern-day tradition, it seems, dates back to 1934, when the Detroit Lions decided to play on Thanksgiving Day.

In this Dec. 10, 1989, file photo, Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Troy Aikman is unable to get a pass off as he is tackled by Philadelphia Eagles’ Reggie White during the first half of NFL football game in Philadelphia. The Eagles-Cowboys game on Thanksgiving in 1989 was known as the “bounty bowl”, when a Cowboys player said the Eagles had bounties out on Troy Aikman. (Credit: AP Photo/Brad Bower)

The team’s owner, George A. Richards, knew scheduling a game on the holiday was risky, but he decided to do it anyway in an effort to bolster the team’s standing in Detroit. The Lions played the Chicago Bears in a duel that inevitably attracted 26,000 people to the University of Detroit Stadium, selling out two weeks before the game.

Photo credit: Shutterstock Photo credit: Shutterstock

Hence, the football and Thanksgiving tradition was born. The Pro Football Hall of Fame noted that Detroit has had a game every year since, aside from a brief hiatus from 1939 to 1944. Just the same, Dallas Cowboys, too, have played every year on Thanksgiving since 1966, only missing two years in 1975 and 1977.

As mentioned, though, football games on Thanksgiving were unfolding prior to the Lions’ 1934 holiday face off.  According to the Library of Congress, ”The American Intercollegiate Football Association held its first championship game on Thanksgiving Day, 1876.” And it didn’t end there.

In the 1890s, Yale and Princeton attracted tens of thousands of fans for championship games and many high schools followed suit. Eventually, they stopped the practice and the NFL simply continued it.


A version of this story first appeared on TheBlaze in 2013.


Front page image via Shutterstock.com.

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