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Thanksgiving (US): Holiday Customs, History, Tradition & Controversy


Thanksgiving is one of the quintessential American holidays, and this article explains some of the traditions, customs, history, and controversy around it.

Updated: 2018-11-03.

painting of the first Thanksgiving
“The First Thanksgiving” (1915), by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris.

Thanksgiving in the United States is probably the most quintessentially “American” holidays out there. 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, controversies, and traditions surrounding what we call “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.

Thanksgiving History

(Just as a quick note, scroll down for the controversies of Thanksgiving – I didn’t forget them!)

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.

Thanksgiving 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, eggnog, 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  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!

Thanksgiving Controversies

Like with Columbus Day and giving African Americans the shortest month for Black History Month, Thanksgiving is fraught with problems, too.

You see, in school, I was taught this cheerful outlook that the Native Americans and the Pilgrims sat down happily together and thanked each other for this and that and lived happily ever after the end, like a Disney movie.

Guess what? It wasn’t like that at all.

Just a generation after the 1621 festivities, when the Wampanoags shared a harvest with the Plymouth colonists facing famine, all goodwill was lost.

In 1637, John Winthrop, Massachusetts colony governor, declared a day of giving thanks to celebrate the slaughter of 700 Pequot people in modern-day Mystic, Connecticut by colonial soldiers.

Later, in 1675, the colonies declared war on the Wampanoag, killing more than 600 and destroying their food stores meant to get them through the winter. Metacomet, known as “King Phillip” to the colonists, led the tribe against the settlers, but ultimately failed.

Metacomet, son of Massasoit who shared that 1621 Thanksgiving, wound up with his head cut off and impaled on a spike, to be put on display in Plymouth for the next 25 years. His people and their allies, those who remained, at least, were further killed or sold into slavery in the Caribbean.

National Day of Mourning

It is because of these atrocities, most of which were and remain uncovered or glossed over, that many Native Americans feel that the Thanksgiving holiday is really celebrating a dark time in history.

As such, many Native Americans, particularly from the New England area, have called for Thanksgiving to be called the National Day of Mourning, in remembrance of this time.

To end this article, I’d like to leave a thought-provoking quote by Moonanum James, Co-Leader of UAINE, at the 29th National Day of Mourning on November 26, 1998:

Some ask us: Will you ever stop protesting? Someday we will stop protesting: We will stop protesting when the merchants of Plymouth are no longer making millions of dollars off the blood of our slaughtered ancestors. We will stop protesting when we can act as sovereign nations on our own land without the interference of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and what Sitting Bull called the “favorite ration chiefs.”

When corporations stop polluting our mother, the earth. When racism has been eradicated. When the oppression of Two-Spirited people is a thing of the past. We will stop protesting when homeless people have homes and no child goes to bed hungry. When police brutality no longer exists in communities of color. We will stop protesting when Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Puerto Rican independentistas and all the political prisoners are free. Until then, the struggle will continue.

So, what do you think about the Thanksgiving holiday? Is it just harmless tradition or should it be replaced instead of celebrated? Talk to us in the comments below!

Christian Eilers
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Christian Eilers
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1 comment
  • How can you say that thanksgiving didn’t have anything to do with the 1st Thanksgiving, but that it was simply a typical English post-harvest festival??

    Wouldn’t you be thankful after escaping religious discrimination in England, almost losing your children’s morality to Dutch liberalism (the Puritans first sought refuge in the Netherlands), surviving the 2-month voyage and making it through the winter? You need to do more homework on all the facts of the Puritan experience before making such sweeping statements. It’s naive at best & insulting to their history at worst.

    Secondly, why did you only mention God with your part about George Washington? The Puritans believed in, worshipped & obeyed God much more than Washington, who was a Deist. You may not believe in God or even be anti-Christian, but a historian cannot delete any important facts, secular or religious.

    Finally, it was Abraham Lincoln who cemented Thanksgiving as an American national holiday. It was not celebrated by most Americans until the late 19th century. By the way, you said berries were at the 1st Thanksgiving, but not present on our modern T-Day menus. What about cranberry sauce??

    I appreciate your educating people on some common misbeliefs (your article on the Middle East/Arab/Persian was excellent), but be careful to do plenty of research before printing errors or misleading people who trust you for information. Merry Christmas!

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