A timeless tradition: the history of Thanksgiving football
For many, pumpkin pie and turkey are just a background to the big game. How did this tradition grow to become what it is today?
Thanksgiving is a time for yummy food, friends and family, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, giving thanks, and most importantly, watching football.
The Super Bowl always has mind-blowing numbers of viewers, but Thanksgiving games are often the most watched regular season games of the year, as millions tune in. According to CNN, the 2022 Dallas Cowboys vs New York Giants Thanksgiving game held almost ten million more viewers than the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
Football began as a combination of rugby and soccer played by college students. The first “official” college football game was played by Rutgers University and Princeton University on November 6, 1869. However, Walter Camp, a rugby player at Yale, took the lead on some rule changes in the 1880s that made American football into the sport we know today.
The tradition of these Thanksgiving games began officially in 1876, with a game hosted by the Intercollegiate Football Association. These games moved to New York in 1880, and grew in popularity as they became followed by post-game trips to the theater, and balls were preceded by large Wednesday night dinners.
While many may think that football is a newer edition to this timeless holiday, this is not the case. Thanksgiving actually hasn’t been around that long! The beginning of this national holiday is traced back to a proclamation made by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, being used during the Civil War as a way to promote unionism. This was continuing a tradition that was created by George Washington, who also issued a proclamation regarding Thanksgiving.
The rise of the sport of football was nearly congruent with the popularity and growth of the holiday, an addition that was considered generally positive as it was widely appealing. Because this was prior to the founding of the National Football League, all teams were associated with academic institutions such as colleges, universities, and high schools. These associations caused people to feel a great sense of pride, as they centered around and gave voices to small communities.
However, not everyone was in support of the close link between an annual sports game and a national holiday. An article published by the New York Herald in 1893 stated, “It is a holiday granted by the State and the nation to see a game of football. No longer is the day one of thanksgiving to the Giver of all good. The kicker now la king and the people bow down to him.” The article, referencing a Princeton University vs Yale University Thanksgiving game, explained that Thanksgiving was meant to be a “festival to God for mercies given” and had been overshadowed by this popular sporting event.
The Thanksgiving games that we watch today are a staple of the NFL, an organization that wasn’t founded until 1920. When the NFL was founded, it struggled to gain popularity. Football was seen as something for school communities, and people were not keen to begin following another circuit of teams. In order to try and gain popularity as an organization, the NFL decided to join in on the tradition of these holiday games. The first NFL-sponsored Thanksgiving football game took place 14 years after its founding, in 1934. This game was hosted by the Detroit Lions, playing against the Chicago Bears, who were the world champions at the time. 1933 was the second year in a row that the Bears had won an NFL title.
The Lions have played a Thanksgiving game every year since, except for the years 1939-1944, as the games were paused during World War II. Football traditions were also upset by “Franksgiving,” referring to President Franklin D. Roosevelt shifting the Thanksgiving holiday one week earlier at the end of the Great Depression. His aim was to extend the holiday season for both economic purposes and the morale of the citizens. This angered many coaches who had scheduled games for November 30, the day that was set to be Thanksgiving, and suddenly the crowds became just a regular crowd instead of the holiday one. The Lions continued to host the annual NFL football game, a team that had come a long way from their three initial seasons as the Portland Spartans, representing a small town in Ohio.
While football was mildly popular, baseball was still the most popular sport in the United States by far. The shift to football began in the 1960s, right around the time when the Dallas Cowboys began to host their annual Thanksgiving game, starting in 1966. As a new team, they were looking to create a fanbase, and the addition of another Thanksgiving game was a very effective way to accomplish this. They were considered to be the most popular team in the league by 1970, potentially proving the link between this holiday tradition and popularity.
Other teams eventually became frustrated with the Lions and Cowboys holding all of the Thanksgiving fame, so the NFL introduced a third game to the holiday lineup. This one is hosted by a rotating roster of teams, introducing variety into a day with a set meal and a set television station. As of now, every team that is a part of the NFL has played a game on Thanksgiving except for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Thanksgiving football is more popular than ever, with three spectacular games taking place last week, each paired with a halftime show. The Lions played the Green Bay Packers, losing with a score of 22-29. The halftime performer at this game was rapper Jack Harlow. The Cowboys played the Washington Commanders, winning with a score of 45-10. Their halftime performance featured country superstar Dolly Parton, who was dressed as a Cowboys cheerleader. The rotating game this year was hosted by the Seattle Seahawks as they lost to the San Francisco 49ers with a score of 31-13. The performance at this game was done by producer and DJ Steve Aoki. Much controversy has arisen regarding Aoki’s set, as NBC cut to a commercial after airing less than ten seconds of this performance. During the earlier games of the day, both Parton and Harlow had approximately six minutes of live air time, completing their full sets for the live audiences at home.
As you begin to plan your menus for next Thanksgiving, start to take your bets on the teams that will be selected to play at the already anticipated holiday games. Do you think Jacksonville will finally get a chance to shine?