History of Thanksgiving and NFL Football


Thanksgiving, an American harvest celebration, calls to mind warm images of collective joy, marked by thanks, feast, family, friends, food, and… football?

Thanksgiving is the only truly American holiday based on harvest celebration. (Though, others, such as Halloween and Christmas also incorporate harvest elements.) It is, as you would have learned in 1st Grade if you were awake and facing the right way, based on a meal shared between the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians (natives) in 1621. Many scholars attribute Thanksgiving to this early meeting, while others posit that the British colonists at Berkeley Plantation, Virginia gave the first “thanks” (and prayer) when they, years earlier, landed in the America after a long and arduous journey at sea across the icy Atlantic.

A Long Tradition of Thanksgiving, Food, Family, and the NFL

In either case, those early moments have established a venerable legacy of thanks, and particularly of feast, that is most familiarly marked by the gathering of family, friends, and food. The ritual, no doubt, has changed little over the years, but in modern times the voracious feasting part is usually followed by retiring to any room with a large screen television to watch the Detroit Lions get beat mercilessly by any number of annually opposing teams. At some indeterminate point (probably after seconds and thirds) everyone falls, docile and non-responsive, into an holiday “turkey coma” before eventually dozing peacefully, slumped over in an approximation of their original position taken hours earlier.

The tradition of the NFL and Thanksgiving actually goes back a surprisingly a long way. The two were first paired in 1920, with the Lions by far holding the longest standing tradition. While the Lions started their holiday play in 1934, the Dallas Cowboys have also been at it, though their tradition has been less than half as longstanding.

The First Thanksgiving Feast

While it is turkey and football for many of us now, it was quite a different story for settlers and natives at the first Thanksgiving feast. They had no muffins, stuffing, candies yams, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pies. What they did have, and what historians can positively vouch for, was venison and wild fowl. Anything else rumored to be on the menu is unfortunately colored by the hopeful speculation that marks the time of year.

What historians do know is that settlers brought with them many of the same spices associated with the Holidays now, including salt, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, and dried fruit. And there were certain foods that would have been available during that period, although it is not clear if they were at the first meal. These common foods included cod, eel, clams, lobster, goose, duck, crane, eagle, venison, and seal. Other foods are listed as follows:

  • Grain: Wheat Flour, Indian Corn
  • Vegetables: Pumpkin, Peas, Beans, Onions, Lettuce, Radishes, Carrots, Parsnips, Leeks
  • Fruit: Plums, Grapes
  • Nuts and Other: Walnuts, Chestnuts, Acorns, Olive Oil, Liverwort, Dried Currants

Interestingly, it was Abraham Lincoln (who else?) who declared the final Thursday in November as a national day of giving thanks, though it took Congress significantly longer to make it official.

Thanksgiving Dinner and Food Ideas

But it doesn’t take an act of Congress to know that turkey, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, pie, and cranberry sauce are good eats and holiday favorites. Some other holiday favorites are listed below:

  • Whether you call it stuffing or dressing, try it with some oysters. Oyster dressing involves fresh oysters, homemade cornbread, onions, and a pinch of cayenne pepper, among other ingredients.
  • For pre-dinner, mix up a goat cheese torta. Just get some cream cheese, goat cheese, dried oregano, fresh pesto, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and slivered almonds.
  • There is nothing better than fresh cranberry sauce. Take a bag of fresh cranberries, drop them into a pot, heat, add sugar-syrup, add orange juice and zest, cook, cool, and serve. Delicious!
  • Sick of plain old mashed potatoes but love them mixed with other sides? Browned-butter smashed potatoes with butternut squash is the solution. Not much more to relay about the ingredients, though.
  • Love the pumpkin pies but don’t want them hanging around after the holidays? Try pumpkin empanadas. You will need pumpkin filling (making your own is a good choice), pastry dough, egg wash, and spices.

Remember, Thanksgiving is not just about food, watching football, and dozing for entire joyously lazy weekday afternoon; it is also about friends. family, warm feelings, catching up, old stories, new stories, and maybe trying some new things. So after that forth slice of pie pause for a moment to give thanks for what you have in life… before passing out in front of the large screen.