On Saturdays and Sundays over the next several months, as the leaves turn bright colors and a chill develops in the air, millions of Americans will be sitting in football stadium parking lots, eating burgers and drinking beer. The practice of tailgating is so popular and so anticipated that, at times, it overshadows the game itself—in fact, one study found that 10 percent of people who tailgate never end up going inside the stadium at all. But how did it become such an engrained part of the football experience?
For two years, Notre Dame professors and anthropologists John Sherry and Tonya Bradford traveled around the country studying, observing and documenting how Americans tailgated. In their 2015 report, they compared the modern-day tradition to ancient Greek and Roman practices of fall harvest celebrations known as "vestavals." Named after Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, these parties were held to enjoy the abundance of the fall harvest season. They were intended to bring the community together for an excessive feast of food and drink, perhaps for the last time before season turned bitter cold and food became scarcer. Comparing tailgating to ancient vestavals, Sherry told the New York Times that the "football season starts at the end of summer, goes through fall and ends on winter's doorstep. Tailgating is an autumnal rite that celebrates abundance in the face of austerity."