As Thanksgiving approaches, we all have our own yearly traditions and celebrations surrounding the holiday. Also, we probably all learned about "the first Thanksgiving" in elementary school, an event which romanticizes the tension between the Native Americans and the incoming European settlers.
But when did this somber holiday of remembrance turn into a full-blown national holiday with parades? Well, here are some real facts and some truly weird traditions that come from honoring Thanksgiving.
The "real" first Thanksgiving
Everyone was taught about the feast at Plymouth Rock in 1621—but technically that was not the first Thanksgiving. In 1541 Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his expedition team held a thanksgiving celebration in Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle.
Father Fray Juan De Padilla, a Franciscan missionary who was traveling with de Coronado, held mass in thanksgiving of the Feast of the Ascension on May 29th, 1541, as the local Native Americans looked on at the spectacle. While this does technically fall under a "feast" that was used to "give thanks", the event that happened in Massachusetts years later embodies more of the well known thanksgiving traditions.
Celebration at Plymouth Rock
Nearly everything that historians know of the first Thanksgiving in New England comes from a single eyewitness report: William Bradford, the Of Plymouth Plantation author and one of the 100 or so people who sailed from England aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and founded Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.
The feast itself most likely took place sometime between September and mid-November in 1621 as a celebration of the recent harvest. This was also a celebration for the settlers that survived that first New England winter—around 50 colonists were believed to attend the feast.
Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag confederacy, brought along 90 Native Americans, outnumbering the colonists almost two to one.
The food that was eaten at that first Thanksgiving would have been what was most abundant at the time: fish and shellfish were most likely the main courses, along with vegetables like corn, leeks, and cucumbers. Today's staples like turkey and potatoes were probably not served at all.
Even cranberries, another food heavily associated with the holiday today, were probably not used in the original feast, or maybe just as a garnish. The Native Americans used cranberries for other things—like treating wounds and dyeing their arrows.
Weird facts for the dinner table
The holiday of Thanksgiving didn't actually gain prominence in popular culture until the 19th century. The scarce historical accounts were compiled into an article published by magazine editor Sarah Hale, who was also known for writing "Mary Had A Little Lamb."
Hale pleaded with then President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday to ease the tensions stemming from the Civil War. Lincoln, along with his predecessors like Thomas Jefferson, all disagreed with making Thanksgiving a national holiday. It wasn't until 1941 that President Roosevelt made the fourth Thursday in November a federal national holiday.
Turkey, the favorite meat served during our modern-day Thanksgiving festivities, made its way to the moon—it was the first meal that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin ate after they landed on the lunar surface.
Aside from the turkey dinner, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is synonymous with the holiday. The parade began in 1924 and featured live tigers, elephants, camels, goats and more—three years later the parade switched to the balloons and floats we know now.
The balloon that has seen the most parades? That would be Charlie Brown's faithful dog Snoopy. You can still see Snoopy this year, even though the parade will be very different than years prior due to strict pandemic restrictions.