Thanksgiving, the day the United States is passionate about American football

“The festivities are starting to slowly prepare. For my part, I have three meals planned, and I know there will be American football on TV every time.”. Elio took advantage of the end of the “travel ban” to fly to the United States to join his in-laws and friends. For this New Orleans Saints fan and community manager of the “Saints France” Twitter account, Thanksgiving rhymes with American football. As in the rest of the country, gargantuan meals and the ball have traditionally gone hand in hand.

An excitement that can be explained first of all by the importance of the party in the lives of Americans. “Thanksgiving is one of the rare times, sometimes more than Christmas, when families get together and spend the day together, so it’s a very strong moment of conviviality”, explains Jean-Baptiste Guégan, geopolitician of sport. In a very large country, where opportunities to get together are rare, Thanksgiving has become a must-see meeting time.

“Americans have little time off, and they rarely take it”, abounds Richard Tardits, former “linebacker” of the New England Patriots and the only French player to have played regular season games in the NFL. “So Thanksgiving, which is a statutory holiday, when we don’t work, is a real opportunity for them to get together.” A reunion that very quickly turned naturally to American football, the most popular sport in the country.

Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills supporters before their game on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2019 (WESLEY HITT / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA)

“The two markers of American national identity are Thanksgiving and American football”, notes Jean-Baptiste Guégan. “Thanksgiving is one of their most essential holidays, along with the American National Day. And American football is the quintessential national sport, an Americanization of the colonial sport of rugby.” Watching American football at Thanksgiving is normal, it’s part of the party. “These are their rituals, their customs, with the preparation of the turkey, with everything else”, says Tiffany Amisse, photographer who officiates at some NFL meetings. A true American communion that goes back almost as far as the beginnings of the celebrations.

The first nationally celebrated Thanksgiving feast dates back to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln decided to set it aside for the fourth Thursday in November. As early as the fall of 1869, the Evening Telegraph, a Philadelphia daily, echoed a match between the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club on November 17, Thanksgiving Day. The tradition was born.

When it was born in 1920, the NFL (National Football League) formalized it and anchored it definitively in habits. As early as 1934, the very young franchise of the Detroit Lions positioned themselves to be the team that hosts a meeting every year on Thanksgiving Day. They were joined by the Dallas Cowboys in 1966, and the two franchises quickly became associated with the party in people’s minds. This November 25, they face the Chicago Bears and the Las Vegas Raiders respectively.

In 2006, the League opened a third, rotating place to host a match on the day of the celebration. This year, the New Orleans Saints are hosting the Buffalo Bills. “Over the past four Thanksgiving, the Saints will have played three times on Thanksgiving Day. I think it’s working well with us, at the TV audience level.”, says Elio.

Because the League has indeed also seen the opportunity to take advantage of the day off to attract supporters to the stadiums, first, then in front of their screens. “It’s an opportunity for people to go to a game in prime time. Usually it’s Monday, Thursday and Sunday night, so it can be a bit more complicated. There, it gives them the opportunity to get together and go to the game, or to watch TV, on the sidelines of the meal “, continues the supporter of the Saints. Banners, signs, animations, decorations, the party continues even in the stadiums.

If Thanksgiving is so marked by American football, it is also because it is almost the only national sporting offer available at this time of the year. Sport in the United States is organized on a rotating basis, so that each discipline has its season and the leagues do not overshadow each other. “On Thanksgiving, baseball is over, basketball and hockey are just beginning”, Richard Tardits list.

The Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys in their Thanksgiving game on November 26, 2020 (AMY LEMUS / NURPHOTO)

US football therefore benefits from overexposure, historically at all levels, since high schools and universities also took part in the celebration over the extended weekend. “As people bridge the gap, there are game proposals for everyone, almost every day. The principle is that the daddy goes to see his son play on Friday evening, on Saturday, he goes to the side. from his old university, and then on Sunday, it’s time for the pro team “, explains the former player.

A tradition that has faded a bit over time. Gabriel played in Division 3 at the University of Rockford, Illinois. “Our championship didn’t have a Thanksgiving game because most of the people were going home.”, he recalls. He took the opportunity to travel, and experience the excitement of the day as a spectator: “They have football branded breads, and they make sandwiches with it. There are lots of derivative products, a big craze.”

The importance of American football on Thanksgiving Day is also seen in practice. All day long, families can also have small games and kick a ball together. “This is the opportunity to play flag football, without contact, with the children”, explains Richard Tardits.

“I had traveled to Denver during the Thanksgiving break, I had come across families walking in the forest with balloons. In the national parks, too, we had been around them, and we saw guys hanging out. walking around with soccer balls, passing each other in the middle of the meadows, it was pretty funny “, recalls Gabriel. Like the bunch of friends, Monica, Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe in Friends.

In 2020, despite the specter of the pandemic, Thanksgiving had been celebrated with ardor by American families, as if to find a little taste of life before. And recall to what extent parties and sport are rooted in their culture and their daily lives, as Jean-Baptiste Guégan explains: “If you want to understand Americans, you have to go celebrate Thanksgiving and watch an NFL game. And if you do both at the same time, you have it all.”

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