5 Surprising Thanksgiving Facts, Including The Holiday's History, Tryptophan, and Hannukah

The end of November is near, and you know what that means: A flurry of top 5 lists about Thanksgiving! No, but seriously, there are some pretty interesting things about Thanksgiving that you should know. (If anything, these facts could help break up any awkward moments between your brother-in-law and dad.) Click on for five delicious facts you didn't know about Turkey Day. 

Thanksgiving Feasts Weren't Always This Good

Let’s get this  one out of the way: The first Thanksgiving feast, which the pilgrims held in 1621 out of gratitude for the Indians who’d helped them survive the freezing Massachusetts winter, probably wasn’t very much like what we eat today. For one, there’s no evidence that they ate any turkey. Journal entries from the occasion say that the crowd enjoyed “wild fowl,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean Turkey — it could have referred to ducks or geese. They also didn’t have any pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce, due to the fact that sugar and flour — and, in general, food — were in chronic short supply. They did eat plenty of deer and shellfish though, which probably made sense at the time but would seem utterly disgusting at a modern day Thanksgiving (“Mom, do I have to eat Uncle Jarrod’s Thanksgiving crawfish this year?”)

Thomas Jefferson Cancelled Thanksgiving

While Thanksgiving has been celebrated by tradition on the last Thursday of November since 1621, its legal status wasn’t codified at the federal level until very recently. Starting with George Washington, presidents often declared Thanksgivings on a year-by-year basis, but that was the thing: They had to re-declare it every year. And sometimes, if they were in a particularly crabby mood, they took it away. Take noted grinch Thomas Jefferson, who refused to declare Thanksgiving during his presidency and is rumored to have called it “the most ridiculous idea ever conceived.”

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a federal holiday, and scheduled it to fall on the fourth Thursday of every month. But that was a non-binding proclamation, and almost eighty years later, its non-bindingness eventually culminated in something of a Thanksgiving crisis...

In 1939, It Was "Franksgiving"

In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November, the traditional but unofficial date of the holiday, to the second-to-last. It was an attempt to stimulate the economy during the great depression; the theory was that retail outlets would be able to start their Christmas sales a week early, as it was taboo to start Christmas sales before Thanksgiving. This caused an uproar, especially amongst Roosevelt’s political opponents, who derisively called the holiday “Franksgiving.

In 1941, Congress signed a compromise measure into law: Thanksgiving would be held on the fourth Thursday of the month. Usually, this means the last Thursday, except when November has five Thursdays, as it did in 1939. (Nowadays, “Franksgiving” is what they call Thanksgiving at former Congressman Barney Frank’s house.)

Turkey Doesn't Really Make You That Tired

People often like to excuse themselves from Thanksgiving parties with a lame joke about how all of that tryptophan in the turkey is making them tired. These people have it wrong, though, because turkey doesn’t really have all that much tryptophan; its levels are comparable to those found in pork, chicken, and cheese. What’s more, tryptophan doesn’t even make you tired unless you eat it without any other proteins, which obviously isn’t the case at all but the laziest of Thanksgiving feasts.

The real reason people get tired Thanksgiving night is the ungodly amounts of carbohydrates, fats, calories, and alcohol they’ve been ingesting for hours on end, all of which play a bigger role in knocking them out than the relatively mild amount of tryptophan in a turkey. In other words, it’s just a standard, if extreme, food coma. Don’t blame the turkey.

This Year's Thanksgiving Is Super Special

This year, Thanksgiving dinner will fall on the second night of Hannukah. But Jewish holidays begin at sundown the night before, so technically, Thanksgiving day take place on the first day of Hannukah, and that almost never happens. The last time the two converged in this way was 1888, and — assuming no more presidents try and futz with Thanksgiving’s scheduling — it won’t happen again for another 77,798 years, when the human race conceivably might not even exist anymore. So now, not later, is the time to drag out your Turkey-shaped menorah

Some have even suggested that the myths of Hannukah and Thanksgiving actually parallel each other. In the words of Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, they’re both “narrative[s] about an arduous journey to escape religious persecution for freedom in a new land, the establishment of a democratic charter and the sense of Divine providence that carried those refugees through their plight.” Okay, more food for us!