Kate Bevan   22 November 2017

Cosmonauts Vladimir N Dezhurov (left) and Mikhail Tyurin celebrate thanksgiving on the ISS

Cosmonauts Vladimir N Dezhurov (left) and Mikhail Tyurin tuck in to their Thanksgiving dinner aboard the International Space Station. Picture: NASA

For Americans – and for those living in the US, even if they’re not American – Thanksgiving is one of the biggest and most important holidays of the year. It’s a time when people gather with those they love to give thanks and to celebrate family and togetherness – and to eat. But how much do you really know about Thanksgiving? We’ve found nine things you probably didn’t know about the holiday.

1. Thanksgiving hasn’t always been an earthbound holiday: the first space Thanksgiving was in 1973, when astronauts Jerry Carr, Bill Pogue and Ed Gibson marked the day on the Skylab space station – but they didn’t have the day off. Gibson and Pogue had to do a six-and-a-half hour spacewalk that day.  And Thanksgiving is a working day for the crew aboard the International Space Station – just as it was last year.

First Thanksgiving held in 1621

The first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 - but wouldn't have happened without the Wampanoag people, who helped the first settlers survive and who shared their meal. Picture: Jean Leon Gerome / Library of Congress

2. Most of us won’t be going into space for Thanksgiving, but earthdwellers will be taking to the air in vast numbers, albeit at a lower altitude. According to Statistic Brain, 39 million families will be on the move this Thanksgiving, with 28.5 million travellers set to board a US airline – that’s a rise of 3% on last year, according to Airlines for America.

3. The first Thanksgiving took place in 1621 in Plymouth Colony when the colonists and local Wampanoag people, who had helped ensure the colonists’ survival, came together to share a meal. However, Thanksgiving didn’t become a fixed national holiday until more than three centuries later, in 1941, when both houses of Congress passed a joint resolution setting the date as the fourth Thursday in November.

4. The final Thursday in November was the date chosen for the holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War, but in 1939, President Franklin D Roosevelt suggested moving it to the penultimate Thursday in November, hoping to boost retail during the Depression by kickstarting the Christmas shopping season. As there were five Thursdays in November 1939, that meant that year’s Thanksgiving was on the fourth Thursday of the month – which has since stuck

Caipirinha and pumpkin rolls? Find out how these Floridians celebrate Thanksgiving. 

5. FDR’s cunning plan worked: the holiday weekend is now a huge shopping occasion in the US – the National Retail Foundation reckons that about 164 million people, or 69% of Americans, will hit the stores over the weekend. Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving – traditionally gets the Christmas shopping season under way, with retailers opening either overnight or very early on the Friday morning.

Black Friday’s evil twin is Cyber Monday, a more recent concept, first noted in 2005. The term “Black Friday” is thought to date from 1961. Cyber Monday is the Monday after Thanksgiving, when online retailers lure shoppers with deep discounts. According to Wikipedia, Cyber Monday is observed in countries around the world, from the US and Australia to the UK and Peru.

6. As well as the country, there are six places in the US called Turkey: in North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Arkansas and Texas, and one place – in Queensland – in Australia.

If the thought of all that Turkey (sorry) has made you think of cranberry sauce, you’ll be glad to hear that there are four places in the world called Cranberry – all in the US: Cranberry, West Virginia; Cranberry, Pennsylvania; Cranberry, North Carolina and Cranberry, Maryland.

7. President Donald Trump carried on the tradition on November 21 2017, just ahead of the first Thanksgiving of his presidency. The spared birds, called Drumstick and Wishbone, were presented to him by the National Turkey Federation, which has officially given the sitting president a bird for his Thanksgiving dinner since 1947.

President John F Kennedy is thought to have been the first president to spare the bird’s life, just four days before he was assassinated in November 1963, while Ronald Reagan was the first to officially pardon the bird, in 1987. Subsequent presidents – both Bushes, Clinton and Obama – have all pardoned their turkeys, sending them to a farm to live out their lives in peace.

8. However, other turkeys are not so lucky and won’t be pardoned: according to the US Department of Agriculture, 244 million turkeys were raised for the table in 2016, a rise of 4.5% on the previous year. Minnesota is a key state for turkey-raising, with just over 18% of them originating from the state – 44.5 million in 2016, said the USDA.

Other turkeys are imported - $25.8m-worth, according to the USDA, with most of those coming from Canada and the rest – 0.1% - coming from France.

9. As we’ve seen, most will be eating turkey for dinner – but while Americans prefer the white breast meat, a study from the University of Michigan found that Pacific Islanders prefer the turkey tail, a gland that attaches the turkey’s tail to its body. That gland, the uropygial gland, produces oil that the bird uses to preen itself, and by its very nature, is high in fat.

University of Michigan researcher Sela Panapasa points out that the tail is “full of fat and cholesterol, and contributes to one of the major health problems facing Pacific Islanders – obesity”. So if that’s your favourite piece of the turkey, go easy on it this Thanksgiving.

However you’re spending Thanksgiving this year, we hope it’s happy and healthy!

How are you celebrating this year? Do you have a traditional turkey dinner or do you incorporate foods from home? Share photos and let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page.