Thanksgiving By the Numbers: The Data of Turkey Day


Just as everything else in this world seemingly generates data, the Thanksgiving holiday tells its own story about American life through numbers.

Where do we go on this special day? Who do we spend time with? What do we eat and what does it take to get it on our tables? What do we know about how the history of Thanksgiving lives on and why do we do this? These all seem like simple, obvious answers, but data unveils some surprising facts about Thanksgiving that might make you look at your feast a bit differently this year.

Anyone with a journalism background will tell you that in order to tell any story, you need to answer the basic questions of who, what, where, why and when.

To answer each of these, we took a look at data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the USDA, as well as a number of studies from industry associations and federal agencies. In doing so, we see a picture of Thanksgiving through numbers that highlights just how much work it takes for the average American to enjoy this day’s feast.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll spare you the “when” except for this little bit of trivia:

Why is Thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November each year? See the answer below.

The Who

Thanksgiving is naturally a time we share with loved ones, which is why the day before the holiday consistently ranks as one of the worst travel days of the year. According to Travel + Leisure Magazine, an estimated 47 million Americans traveled for Thanksgiving in 2015, with roughly 89% of them hitting the road.

There are, of course, a significant number of Americans who don’t have to travel for the holiday and as it turns out, many don’t have to leave home to be with the entire family.

Multi-generational households are defined as those consisting of more than two generations living under the same roof, of which there are 4.6 million households in the U.S. If you’re among those who don’t have to sit in traffic jams or wait in line at the airport to be under the same roof as your parents and grandparents, add that to your list of things to be thankful for.

Family Gatherings[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

Every family has their own traditions of course. But your relationship with Thanksgiving may go back a lot further than your personal history with it, depending on your heritage. Around 23.8 million Americans are of English ancestry, each one a potential descendent of the 17th century pilgrims who participated in the first Thanksgiving feast we immortalize in children’s plays and storybooks.

The odds of you sharing some pilgrim ancestry are, sadly, far greater than the odds that you come from the participants on the Native American side, as only 6,500 members of the Wampanoag American Indian tribe remained as of 2010. The group was vital to the survival of the colonists in their first years on the new continent.

The What

It’s believed that the first Thanksgiving involved venison rather than turkey, so you can’t fault the 12% of Americans who choose to eat something other than turkey on the day. But for the other 88%, turkey is an indispensable part of Thanksgiving tradition and one that takes a tremendous amount of labor, whether in the kitchen, at the supermarket or on the farm.

Here are some facts you might find surprising about what’s on the table this Thanksgiving:

  • In 2015, there were 66,284 supermarkets and grocery stores in the United States
  • In 2016, USDA statistics forecasted the number turkeys being raised in the U.S. at 244 million
  • You might think that’s enough turkey to go around, but you’d be wrong. The U.S. imported $25.8 million worth of turkeys from Canada and France last year
  • The state with the most turkeys raised goes to Minnesota, with 44.5 million. North Carolina came in second, raising 33.5 million birds
  • Wisconsin and Massachusetts provide the country with most of the cranberries served on Thanksgiving, with the two states combining for 728 million of the 859 million pounds of cranberries produced in 2016
  • American farmers produced 3.1 billion pounds of side dish ready sweet potatoes in 2015, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service

The Where

You might think the standard answer here would be someone’s house. That makes sense, given that the Census Bureau data shows 118.9 million occupied housing units across the country and that the popular portrayal of Thanksgiving dinner usually involves gathering around someone’s dining room table. But America’s relationship with cooking and serving meals has changed drastically over the last three decades.

Thanksgiving, as it turns out, is now a busier day for restaurants than Valentine’s Day, according to the National Restaurant Association. It’s second only to Mother’s Day in terms of popularity, with roughly 1-in-10 people ordering their gravy covered meal rather than plating it up themselves. The association found the stats to be roughly the same in 1990, something media pundits at the time attributed to women entering the workplace. It may not be as simple as that, and hey, don’t blame the ladies for making a living.

A 2006 study from the American Psychological Association revealed heightened stress levels for women around the holidays, often associated with the preparation, execution and cleanup from what many Americans consider ideal holiday rituals, especially big meals.

With women and men sharing a more equal percentage of the workforce today, neither party has the necessary time for the kind of preparation that goes into a big Thanksgiving Day meal anymore, leaving restaurants to pick up the slack.

In 2015, the National Restaurant Association estimated that 15 million people ate their Thanksgiving meal in restaurants, while another 18 million ordered their meals from a restaurant and took it home to eat.

The weekend as a whole ends up being quite busy, with 2/3 of Black Friday shoppers saying they are likely to visit a restaurant in between store stops.

The Why

The first national day of Thanksgiving was actually proclaimed by George Washington in 1789. But it wasn’t a widely observed holiday until the mid-19th century following a 36 year campaign to make it a holiday, headed up by Sara Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and writer of the tune “Mary had a Little Lamb.”

Hale was particularly interested in the creation of a nationally observed Thanksgiving holiday, writing Thanksgiving themed poems and publishing autumnal recipes that included roast turkey, sweet potato pudding and pumpkin pie. She took her efforts as far as the office of the President through letter writing campaigns.

President Zachary Taylor and his predecessors were not interested in declaring it a national holiday, but in the midst of a Civil War, her pleas found a different response from Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, Lincoln declared it a national holiday, saying that “the American people should take some time for gratitude.”

Hale’s vision for Thanksgiving is largely what we celebrate today. It’s a day to be with your loved ones and give thanks for the good things in your life. But we all like different things about it. Maybe for you it’s the family time and the memories you have of past Thanksgivings, but for your best friend, it’s the turkey and passing out before the sun goes down.

ANSWER: Originally, the day given a holiday distinction by Abraham Lincoln was the fourth Thursday in November. It was then moved to the third Thursday of each November by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, for the purpose of helping the economy by making the Christmas shopping season longer.


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