Texas Thanksgiving Nostalgia

It’s a source of Texas holiday pride to note that, on Thanksgiving Day in 1895, the footballing Texas varsity team played its first Thanksgiving game on the gridiron, besting San Antonio in a humiliating 38-0 rout. Six years later, the holiday tradition set its roots, with Texas versus Texas A&M—the Longhorns versus the Aggies—capturing Texans’ attention for what was to be a Thanksgiving Day ritual of the first order. But the annual rivalry that dominated college football in the state for more than 100 years ended somewhat sadly a few years ago, when Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC.

Never to be deterred, however, Texans across the state have tucked that piece of pride in their pockets and have been subtly reshaping what the Thanksgiving holiday means, or at least some of the details of how it gets celebrated.

Speaking of Thanksgiving traditions in Texas, it’s time to digress and set the record straight with a little a bit of obligatory historical revision.

Even for many natives of the Lone Star State, it might come as a surprise to discover that, contrary to what the history books teach us, the first North American Thanksgiving did not occur on Massachusetts’ Plymouth Plantation, in the fall of 1621, with the Pilgrims and native Wampanoags sitting down to break bread and offer thanks for their meager harvest. According to many southwestern historians, El Paso was the de facto setting for that auspicious occasion, a good 20-plus years before the Pilgrims ever set a buckled black shoe on Plymouth Rock.

It was then, researchers say, that Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate, through a series of events, led an expedition of 500 soldiers, colonists, women and children across the treacherous Chihuahuan Desert toward the Rio Grande. At the end of their arduous journey, Oñate ordered a feast of thanksgiving to be prepared, a sumptuous meal that was served a few miles from what is now El Paso’s Chamizal National Memorial.

One member of the expedition wrote of the event: “We built a great bonfire and roasted the meat and fish, and then all sat down to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before… We were happy that our trials were over, as happy as were the passengers in the ark when they saw the dove returning with the olive branch in his beak, bringing tidings that the deluge had subsided.”

Some 437 years later, enterprising people across the state are still putting their own Texas twist on a holiday tradition that—if not local football— always includes sumptuous food. Whether it’s smoked and barbecued Texas-style turkey from Austin’s beloved Franklin Barbecue; a heaping plateful of the many-splendored turducken from East Texas; steaming gourmet tamales from Houston’s own Texas Tamale Company; or a holiday kolache pastry filled with fruit, cheese or sausage, it’s a latter-day piece of Thanksgiving with a unique Texas brand.

Texas Thanksgiving would truly not be complete without honoring the state tree with a sticky, gooey, football-size slice of pecan pie—maybe one done especially Texas-style, like you can find at Austin’s historic Driskill Hotel.

Or perhaps it’s simply something fresh out of your own oven with its marvelous aroma wafting throughout the house and into the family room, where a football game is on TV—some traditions still thankfully persist.

Did You Know?

Thanksgiving in Texas might even stretch back further than Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate’s celebration. In 1541, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led 1,500 men in a thanksgiving celebration at the Palo Duro Canyon. The Texas Society Daughters of the American Colonists commemorated the event as the “first Thanksgiving” in 1959.

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