Every year, families reunite for NFL Thanksgiving with a lot of hugs, food and, of course, football on television. This year won’t be different as the league has three scheduled games for Thursday, giving fans a lot of reasons to celebrate even more.

At 12:30 p.m. ET, the Super Bowl contenders Buffalo Bills are back in Motown but this time to face the Detroit Lions. Then, at 4:30 p.m. ET, the Dallas Cowboys will host the surprising New York Giants for an NFC East division clash. Finally, Thanksgiving play wraps up with the 8-2 Minnesota Vikings facing the New England Patriots.

And things will be even more special in 2022. The NFL branded the Thanksgiving matchups as the John Madden Thanksgiving Celebration, honoring the memory of head and broadcaster John Madden, who past away in December 2021 and was a key figure in the world of sports in the United States.

“No one cared more or contributed more to our game than John Madden,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said via the NFL website. “Honoring his memory and impact on the NFL is important and Thanksgiving Day brings all of the elements significant to John to life — family, football, food and fun.”

Each network will also choose the “Madden Player of the Game.” All honored players will receive a $10,000 donation in their name from the NFL Foundation to the youth or high school football program of their choice. This will keep Madden’s passion for youth football alive and help the next generation of football players.

But all traditions have a beginning. Here is a bit of the history behind the NF: Thanksgiving annual tradition from its origins and some curiosities.

What year did the NFL start playing on Thanksgiving?

The idea of playing on Thanksgiving day has been around for more than 150 years. In 1869, just weeks after the first recognized American football match, Rutgers and Princeton kicked off at noon on Thanksgiving. In 1876, Princeton and Yale began a tradition of playing each other every year on that holiday. Michigan then started its own tradition against the Chicago Maroons in the 1890s.

In the early 20th century, leagues started to notice the success of playing during the Thanksgiving holiday. Many pro-amateur teams and schools began playing that day, but it was a little later that the NFL tradition started.

The National Football League was founded in 1920, and in the same year the league had its first Thanksgiving game. The Akron Pros won 7-0 against the Canton Bulldogs, starting a tradition that was only interrupted in 1941-44 due to World War II.

In the early years of the NFL, the rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals (now Arizona) was played from 1922 to 1933. Both organizations then faced different teams in subsequent seasons. Also, the New York Giants played a game from 1928 to 1938 against a city rival.

Which two NFL teams always play on Thanksgiving?

In 1934, George A. Richards, a local radio executive and the first owner of the Lions, started the tradition in Detroit with the goal to improve sales and promote the new city team. That year, the Lions lost to the Bears 19-16.  With the exception of 1939 to 1944, the Detroit franchise has hosted a game an NFL Thanksgiving game ever since.

The Lions have 82 Thanksgiving games on their résumé, winning 37 of them. After Detroit, the most a team has played in the holiday is the Dallas Cowboys with 54.

In addition to having the most games on Thanksgiving, Detroit has the most popular matchup of the holiday. The Lions have faced the Green Bay Packers in 21 opportunities, most recently in 2013. Their record against the Packers on Thanksgiving is 12-8-1.

Starting in 1966, seeing the success of Detroit, television networks asked for a late afternoon time slot. Because of that, the NFL added a second game to Thanksgiving Thursday. Originally planned to rotate the hosts, the league offered Dallas the chance to have the first late-afternoon Thanksgiving matchup, but the franchise would only accept if it became a tradition. There, the Cowboys’ NFL Thanksgiving history officially began.

The exception was in 1975 and 1977 when the St. Louis Cardinals hosted with the league’s intention of rotating the late-afternoon slot. Due to weak attendance, poor performances by the Cardinals, and the Kirkwood–Webster Groves Turkey Day Game, a high school tradition in Missouri, the NFL decided to return the game to Dallas, making it an annual tradition that lasts until today.

The Cowboys hosted Cleveland Browns, winning 26-14. Since then, Dallas has a 31-22-1 record in Thanksgiving games, the best winning percentage among teams with at least 10 games.

In the 2006 season, the NFL decided to add a third game to the holiday, this one played in primetime. As opposed to the first two, the night NFL Thanksgiving matchup does not have a permanent host, and it varies each year.