Every year on the fourth Thursday in November, millions of Americans gather for a Thanksgiving Day feast, filled with family, friends, turkey and pumpkin pie. People all over the country travel far and wide to gather around a table to give thanks with their closest family and friends. However, the Thanksgiving tradition goes much deeper than a big feast! Explore the Thanksgiving history and stories behind the traditions below.
History of Thanksgiving
The first ‘Thanksgiving’ took place in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The celebration saw Pilgrims and Wampanoag Tribesmen gathering for a 3-day feast, where the Pilgrims demonstrated their tradition of thanking God for a bountiful feast. On this particular day, the Pilgrims were celebrating their gratitude for a successful harvest in the New World.
Thanksgiving was declared a national day of thanks and prayer by the first American President, George Washington in 1789. However, it wasn’t proclaimed as an official federal holiday until 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln.
Common Thanksgiving Traditions
Turkey and Pumpkin Pie
When Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, most of them will have the same traditional menu consisting of turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and pumpkin pie. Where did this tradition come from?
Historians don’t believe that turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving in 1621; in fact, according to letters of English leader Edward Winslow, food shared at the first Thanksgiving meal included wildfowl, venison and lobster.
While there aren’t any explicit accounts of when turkey was introduced as ‘the Thanksgiving meal’, some pragmatic reasons for eating turkey over other meats include the size – it’s large enough to feed a full family -, turkeys don’t have a utilitarian purpose like egg-laying or producing milk and it’s not a common meat (like pork), making it a suitable option for a special occasion.
While it was most likely not included in the first Thanksgiving meal, pumpkin pie became a popular dish in the United States in the 17th Century, with its inclusion on Thanksgiving dating back to 1623.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Each year, approximately 3.5 million people line the streets of New York City to watch the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The first parade of its kind took place in 1924, however instead of floats and balloons, animals from the Central Park Zoo were walked through the streets. However, by 1927, the parade had swapped the animals for floats. While the Parade didn’t run during WWII (there was a shortage of helium), by the end of the war, the parade was so sorely missed that the tradition grew even more popular.
Football at Thanksgiving is almost as synonymous as turkey and pumpkin pie. The first Thanksgiving Day football game was played in Philadelphia in 1869 between players from the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club. At the collegiate level, Princeton and Yale played on Thanksgiving between 1987 and 1881.
The first professional football games on Thanksgiving were played in 1920 and has continued as a tradition to the present day.