“The First Thanksgiving” (1915), by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris.
Thanksgiving in the United States is probably the most quintessentially-American holidays that there are. For those of you that are visiting or will visit around the Thanksgiving holiday, as well as for those of us that simply want to understand a bit more about it, I’ve prepared this brief look into the history, culture, customs, and traditions surrounding “Turkey Day.” As with many of my articles documenting history and traditions, I do this just as much for myself as I do for my 15+/- readers, to learn more about it myself as I research and write. This post is about the Thanksgiving holiday in the USA, with a completely different history as to the holiday of the same name in Canada.
Though there has been Thanksgiving feasts dating back to the 1500′s in the mainland United States, the holiday that Americans now celebrate today can be traced back to before the country was born, in 1621. In that year, the Pilgrims, early settlers from England, held a feast for an exceptionally bountiful harvest season. Though this is commonly referred to in schools and tradition as the first Thanksgiving feast, it really had little to do with Thanksgiving, as it was merely a feast right after the harvest.
The Pilgrims were originally members of the English Separatist Church (Puritan) and sailed to Plymouth Rock (in modern day Massachusetts) aboard the Mayflower ship to escape religious persecution. These Pilgrims got a London company to finance a pilgrimage to America. On December 11, 1620, they reached Plymouth Rock. Though their first winter was devastating and they lost nearly half of the Mayflower’s passengers, the following year’s harvest was exceedingly great and plentiful. Many Native Americans are believed to have helped the Pilgrims survive that first winter, and when they finally threw a harvest feast after the 1621 season was over, the Native Americans were welcomed and took part. However, this feast was traditionally more of a standard English harvest festival than a Thanksgiving observance. Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader (a Native American tribe) had donated food to the Pilgrims that first winter, and Squanto (affiliated with the Wampanoags) taught these first colonists how to grow corn and catch fish and eel.
Governor William Bradford was the leader of these Pilgrims, and he sent men to hunt fowl such as ducks and geese. Though turkey is the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving feasts today, it is not known if this bird was present at this meal. The Pilgrims called all wild fowl “turkey.” This “first Thanksgiving” feast included many foods that are not a staple of the holiday as is commonly observed today, such as venison, eel, fish, berries, clams, and lobster.
About a century later, On Oct. 3, 1789, George Washington, the first president of the United States, gave a proclamation and created the first Thanksgiving Day. The date he set for this new holiday was the 4th Thursday of November, as we now continue to celebrate. The proclamation by Washington and the ensuing holiday were in order to give thanks to God for the new country being born and numerous other blessings that the American fathers felt were obligatory to show thankfulness for. The date changed several times throughout the next two centuries, until Congress finally made it a legal holiday in 1941, and set the date as the 4th Thursday of every November.
Traditions & Customs
The Thanksgiving Feast – By far the most important aspect of the holiday today, the feast usually involves family and friends gathering together for a special meal with numerous dishes. Many homes will start the meal off by stating something they are thankful for. Turkey can be expected to be the centerpiece of nearly all Thanksgiving dinners. Other common dishes include: pumpkin pie, corn, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, yams, green bean casserole, deviled eggs, and cornbread. Common drinks for the meal include apple cider, egg nog, and various teas, spirits, and wines.
Watching Football – American football is commonly watched at many Thanksgiving gatherings. With the exception of World War II, there has been a football game that Thursday going back to the 1930′s, and many Americans will make a point to watch the game, usually after the feast, which is commonly an early dinner.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade - This parade, often called simply the Macy’s Day Parade, is the most famous and second-oldest of the Thanksgiving Day parades in the United States. Started back in 1924, it is about a 3-hour event that takes place each year in New York City and is broadcast nationally. It is famous for having large balloons and floats slowly make their way through the course, as well as many special guests, like actors, musical artists, and Broadway cast members.
Pardoning of the Turkey – The National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation is a ceremony that takes place at the White House just before Thanksgiving each year. Since 1989, the president has granted one lucky turkey a “presidential pardon,” sparing the bird from being slaughtered for Thanksgiving dinner.
Food/Clothing Drives – Since it is a day to celebrate thankfulness for what people have, many donate at this time to charities and help out at soup kitchens for the less fortunate.
Vacation – Many people use Thanksgiving as an excuse to get away, since it is already a day off work at most places of business. Whether travel taken is to get away or to meet with family for the traditional dinner, Thanksgiving travel is the most expensive and busiest time of the year to fly.
Black Friday Shopping – Though technically the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas shopping heads into full swing almost immediately after the feast. Dubbed “Black Friday,” it is usually a day where there are numerous bargains to be had on many consumer purchases. People often line up in the wee hours of Friday morning to be first in line for the limited availability of sale items; some even line up outside of stores as soon as Thanksgiving dinner is over!