When Is the Last Time the Detroit Lions Didn’t Play on Thanksgiving?

The Detroit Lions playing — and losing — on Thanksgiving is as synonymous with the holiday as turkey, stuffing, and passing out on the couch during the first quarter of the Thursday night game.

Whether you watched Barry Sanders carve through defenses like Grandma’s knife or Matthew Stafford try rallying his team and falling just short, you’ve seen far too many Lions games on Turkey Day. Unfortunately, your parents, and maybe even their parents, are almost certainly in the same boat.

The Detroit Lions have played on every Thanksgiving since 1945

The NFL in 1934 looked nothing like the 32-league you see now. There were only two divisions and 11 total teams, five of which — Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay, Philadelphia, and the New York Giants — still exist today in their current form.

That season also marked the first time the Lions, then one of the league’s top teams, played on Thanksgiving. Fittingly, Chicago defeated Detroit, 19-16, on Nov. 29, 1934.

Even as the NFL constantly changed, Detroit continued the tradition through 1938. However, the onset of World War II temporarily paused the practice, although several teams, including the Eagles, hosted Thanksgiving Day games in 1939 and 1940.

From 1941-44, the league played zero Thanksgiving Day games. On Nov. 22, 1945, six months after VE Day and nearly three months after Japan signed the surrender documents, the Lions resumed their holiday custom … and lost, 28-21, to the then-Cleveland Rams.

Since then, the Lions have played at home on Thanksgiving Day every year. Just think about how many hours you’ve wasted watching them lose when you could have been napping, watching terrible movies, playing board games, or sneaking extra appetizers.

The NFL constantly made adjustments to continue playing during World War II

World War II forced the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers to become the Steagles.
The Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Steagles, AKA the combined Eagles and Steelers, tried defending Washington running back Wilbur Moore in 1943 | Nate Fine/NFL via Getty Images

The stories about every American doing their part in World War II aren’t hyperbole. Many professional athletes were either drafted or enlisted into the armed forces. Even New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio, arguably the face of baseball at the time, served in Hawaii and California and played baseball while in the army. 

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, World War II “siphoned the ranks of the NFL” and created a “severe manpower shortage.” The Rams suspended play in 1943, and the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles merged, becoming the Phil-Pitt Combine. However, you likely know them as the Steagles, a team that went 5-4-1 despite the odds.

A year later, Pittsburgh merged with the then-Chicago Cardinals, and the Carpets went 0-10. The Boston Yanks (that was a real name) and Brooklyn Tigers spent the 1944 season as a traveling team known only as the Yanks.

On a more somber note, 21 men with NFL ties — 19 active or former players, former Cardinals coach Jack Chevigny, and Eagles executive John O’Keefe — died during the war.

Don’t expect the Lions’ Thanksgiving tradition to go away anytime soon

The Detroit Lions celebrate a Thanksgiving Day victory in 1999.
The Detroit Lions playing on Thanksgiving Day is a painful tradition like none other | Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

The Forever-Stubborn NFL Needs to Accept Defeat and Finally Free Us From Watching the Lions on Thanksgiving Each Year

At this point, even Lions fans might be exhausted by seeing their team take the field every Thanksgiving. Unfortunately for the tortured viewers at home and at Ford Field, the NFL doesn’t seem likely to change things anytime soon.

Despite having every incentive to adjust the schedule and allow different teams to host games in the early window, the NFL has remained stubborn. Never mind that the Lions have had five seasons since the start of the century — 2000, 2011, 2014, and 2016-17 — where they finished with a non-losing record.

At 0-9-1, we already know the Lions are destined for a losing season and, possibly, the first overall pick for the first time since 2009. And yet, we know that we’re going to watch them play this year, and next year, and probably in 2023, too.