Skip to main content

Talking Turkey | Thanksgiving Trivia

By State Legislatures News  |  November 20, 2020

You've gone 'round the table—or taken turns over Zoom—telling your friends and family what you're most thankful for this Thanksgiving. Now, drop some Turkey Day trivia on your guests with these holiday facts and toast to your new-found knowledge. Cheers!

1. First Things First

Only half of the pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower, and only four married women, survived the first harsh winter from 1620-1621. In fall 1621, the Pilgrims, thankful to be alive, and the Wampanoag Indians celebrated with a three-day feast in Plymouth, Mass. The four women supervised the food preparations for the three-day harvest feast for the 50 colonists, Chief Massasoit and the 90 Indians who attended.

2. Finger-Lickin' Good

It took the 102 Pilgrims 66 days to reach America. One passenger, a servant of Deacon Samuel Fuller, died, and one child was born at sea. That child was Oceanus, son of Stephen and Elizabeth Hopkins. Unfortunately, he died during the first winter. The Pilgrims landed at the tip of Cape Cod on Nov. 11, 1620, but since the land was not good for farming, they moved to Plymouth. To eat, the Pilgrims used a knife, spoon, a large napkin and fingers ... but no forks. They also shared plates and drinking vessels. In the Pilgrim household, the adults sat down to dinner and the children waited on them.

3. 'People of the First Light'

The Wampanoag People have lived in southeastern New England for more than 12,000 years. Their name means "People of the First Light" and they continue to live on Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and inland. The Wampanoag Indians were the people who befriended the Pilgrims and taught them how to cultivate the land.

4. Thanks, Abe

Sarah Josepha Hale, an influential magazine editor and author, waged a tireless campaign starting in 1827 to make a national holiday for thanksgiving and prayer. In part, as a result of her efforts, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln—to celebrate Union victories and to pray for the troops in the field—issued the proclamation that decreed Thanksgiving to fall each year on the final Thursday of November. Before that, each state governor decided when to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving.

5. Some Tom-Foolery

Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be a national symbol of the United States. But Thomas Jefferson opposed him. It is believed that Franklin named the male turkey "tom" to spite Jefferson. In a letter to his daughter sent in 1784, Franklin wrote, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of a bad moral character ... like those among men who live by ... robbing. The turkey ... is a much more respectable bird ... a true original native of America,” and “though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage.” Turkey actually did not achieve its prominent status in the holiday meal until after World War II, when the poultry industry’s aggressive marketing and development of larger hybrid turkeys made the turkey into a symbol of American abundance.

6. Shopping Season

In 1939, after a request from the National Retail Dry Goods Association, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that the holiday should be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of the month (and never the occasional fifth, as occurred in 1939) in order to extend the holiday shopping season by a week. The decision sparked great controversy and was still unresolved in 1941, when the House of Representatives passed a resolution making the last Thursday in November a legal national holiday. The Senate amended the resolution, setting the date as the fourth Thursday, and the House eventually agreed.

7. Lions and (Princeton) Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

The newly formed American Intercollegiate Football Association held its first championship game on Thanksgiving Day in 1876. At the time, the sport was evolving from rugby. By the 1890s, more than 5,000 club, college and high school football games were taking place on Thanksgiving. Championship match-ups between schools like Princeton and Yale could draw up to 40,000 fans. The NFL took up the tradition in 1934, when the Detroit Lions (recently arrived in the city and renamed) played the Chicago Bears. Since then, the Lions have played on Thanksgiving every year, except during the World War II years (1939-1944).

8. What's in a Name?

Three small towns take their name from the traditional Thanksgiving bird: Turkey, Texas; Turkey Creek, La.; and Turkey, N.C.

9. Gopher State Gobblers

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Minnesota is the top turkey-producing state in America, with about 49 million produced annually. Just six states—Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia, Missouri and Indiana—produce two-thirds of the birds raised in the United States.

10. Turkey for (Almost) Everyone

Approximately 88% of U.S. families eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

11. Going Global

The country that consumes the most turkey per year, per capita: Israel.

12. Call of the Wild (Turkey)

The national headquarters of the National Wild Turkey Federation is located in Edgefield, S.C. It contains the only museum in the world dedicated to the restoration, management and hunting of the wild turkey. The amazing comeback story of the American wild turkey unfolds through exciting exhibits, such as the world's largest turkey call.

  • Contact NCSL

  • For more information on this topic, use this form to reach NCSL staff.