The Pilgrims Would Not Have Liked Football...Especially On Thanksgiving

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I did not grow up with football. But I did grow up with Charlie Brown. So, when I first saw this scene from 1973's "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," I'm pretty sure I thought Lucy was pulling Charlie Brown's leg…again.

So why did football and Thanksgiving come to be linked? I remember enough from high school to know that historians can't draw a straight line from the so-called "first Thanksgiving" in 1621 to the holiday we celebrate today.

"No, historians can't draw straight lines to anything or from anything," said Richard Crepeau, professor of history at the University of Central Florida. He specializes in sports history and 20th Century U.S. history.

It was something that people would go out and do on Thanksgiving. You got through dinner and what else to do with your guests…you’d take them to a football game.

James Baker

"In the Colonial period, the concept of Thanksgiving was essentially a thanks for a harvest or thanks for a military victory — thanks for something that went right," explained Crepeau.

Those Thanksgivings weren't a celebration of the home. They were a solemn church affair where colonists spent hours — sometimes all day — sitting on hard church pews.

Historian James Baker was the long-time director of research for the living history museum Plimoth Plantation — so he knows a thing or two about Pilgrims. So I asked him — would Pilgrims have enjoyed football on Thanksgiving?

"No, no, no. The Pilgrims probably wouldn't have approved of it."

The Pilgrims did not approve of sports. Or leisure. Or fun. But…

"Even King James — who liked sports — told his son, his son Henry who died, that he should avoid football," Baker added. "Other sports were all right. Football is more for laming, he said, than exercise."

Over time, opinions about the benefits of long hours in church pews and the dangers of football softened, and Thanksgivings — celebrations of family and home — were being held on a semi-regular basis. But semi-regularity wasn't enough for Godey's Lady's Book editor Sarah Hale.

"And at some point she began to write editorials about it," Crepeau said, "and sending letters to presidents and governors seeking to have some sort of official holiday."

It took decades, but eventually all that letter and editorial writing paid off, and President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863.

Football, Holiday Songs And Patriarchy

I grew up thinking of "Over the River And Through The Woods" as a Christmas song, so what's it doing in the middle of a story about Thanksgiving and football? (And I am getting back to the football, I promise you.)

If you don't already know, it isn't really a Christmas song. It's a Thanksgiving song.

"The original was, 'Over the river and through the woods to grandfather's house,'" James Baker explained. "Because it was the patriarch of the family that was inviting everybody."

And this is where football comes to the rescue. Because with Sarah Hale and all her letter writing moving Thanksgiving out of the church — a male realm — and into the home — where women ruled — some scholars suggest that men were starting to get a bit concerned about their place in this holiday of turkey and pumpkin pie. I ran this idea by Crepeau, and he agreed.

"If you go back to the late 19th Century," Crepeau said, "one of the great, sort of, social anxieties that one reads about in that period is a concern over the feminization of culture."

Luckily, college football came along at just the right time.

"Football, in general, it's so identified with masculinity," Crepeau added, "and masculinity is so central to all the rituals around it and to the game itself. The introduction of that into a national holiday, it certainly masculinizes the holiday itself."

The first college football game was held in 1874. It wouldn't be long before the sport found a home on Thanksgiving Day.

Baker: "The Princeton vs. Yale game became the first, sort of traditional, established one."

Crepeau: "At one point in the mid [18]90s, the football advisor at Yale decided that perhaps it was time to focus it on Thanksgiving Day."

Baker: "It just sort of took off from there."

Crepeau: "They were playing at the Polo Grounds in New York. It was drawing about 40,000 fans."

Baker: "It was something that people would go out and do on Thanksgiving. You got through dinner and what else to do with your guests? You'd take them to a football game."

Crepeau: "Very quickly, that idea of a Thanksgiving game, football game, spread out of New York, out of the Yale-Princeton rivalry and spread across the country, and by the mid-late [18]90s there were maybe 5,000 Thanksgiving Day football games going on across the country."

But not everyone was happy.

The New York Herald published a commentary on the day after Thanksgiving in 1893, complaining that, "Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given. … It is a holiday granted by the State and Nation to see a game of football."

Forty years later — in 1934 — the NFL joined the Thanksgiving Day party with a tradition that brought the holiday back into the home.

"The owner of the Lions, George Richards, he also had an interest in a radio station in Detroit," Crepeau said. "And he was able to put together a network of 94 stations coast-to-coast to broadcast the Lions game on Thanksgiving Day. This brought in then a national radio audience, and that was the beginning of the Detroit Lions, sort of, traditional Thanksgiving Day game.

In 1966, a second game was added to the Thanksgiving Day television schedule. And then more recently, a third game…which, Crepeau says, really might be taking the whole thing too far:

"By then you're full of food and drink and you probably don't need to be stuffed with another football game at that point. But, depending on playing, you might watch."

This story was produced as part of Only A Game's "Celebration of Home."

This segment aired on November 28, 2015.


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Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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