Thanksgiving: Americans gather ’round the table—and not the mall—in gratitude

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Abraham Lincoln, October 1863, Proclamation for Thanksgiving

Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered, talking, sharing food

The first Thanksgiving. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 24: Savor the tantalizing smells and clasp your hands together in gratitude, for the holiday of (American) Thanksgiving. News sources are predicting a busy travel season, this year—with low airfares, U.S. airlines are expected to carry approximately 55,000 more passengers a day than last year—and that means more gathering around the table for turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie. (Chicago Tribune has the story.) Those statistics, paired with last year’s 44 percent plunge in Thanksgiving Day retail shopping from 2014, indicate that more Americans just may be deciding that gathering around the turkey-day table really is preferable to battling crowds at a local mall.

HISTORY OF THANKSGIVING IN THE UNITED STATES

Of course, most Americans know that there were earlier thanks-giving events down through the centuries. The cultural instinct to gather, as a community, and give thanks before winter storms arrive has been a strong pull across the Northern Hemisphere. But the widely celebrated “first American Thanksgiving” took place in 1621 at Plymouth in what is now Massachusetts. In 1621, Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans shared such a feast in Plymouth. Lincoln may be the founder of our annual holiday tradition, but that very early cross-cultural dinner in Plymouth still inspires millions of Americans.

Did you know? The U.S. President “pardons” the White House turkey each year, and after the pardoning, the turkey becomes part of the Mount Vernon Christmas-themed display. Later, the turkeys live at Mount Vernon in its ongoing agricultural exhibit. The First Family and friends dine on dressed turkeys shipped to White House chefs for the holiday.

That 1621 Thanksgiving celebration melded two very different cultures: the Wampanoag and the Europeans. For the Wampanoag, giving thanks for the Creator’s gifts was an established custom. A plentiful harvest was just one of several reasons for a Wampanoag ceremony of thanks. For European Pilgrims, English harvest festivals were about rejoicing, and after the bountiful harvest of 1621 and amicable relations between the Wampanoag and the Europeans, no one could deny the desire for a plentiful shared feast. The “first” Thanksgiving took place over three days, and was attended by approximately 50 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans.

Pumpkin pie on plate with rest of whole pie behind it

Pumpkin pie. Photo by Dennis Wilkinson, courtesy of Flickr

By the 1660s, an annual harvest festival was being held in New England. Often, church leaders proclaimed the Thanksgiving holiday. Later, public officials joined with religious leaders in declaring such holidays. The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777, and just over one decade later, George Washington proclaimed the first nation-wide thanksgiving celebration, as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” National Thanksgiving proclamations were made by various presidents through the decades, falling in and out of favor until Sarah Hale convinced President Abraham Lincoln to proclaim Thanksgiving as a federal holiday. Still, it wasn’t until 1941 that Thanksgiving was established permanently as the fourth Thursday of November.

TURKEY TROTS & PUMPKIN PIE

The National Football League has played games on Thanksgiving Day since its creation, and in 1924, Americans enjoyed the inauguration of both the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade”—held annually in New York City—and “America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade”—held in Detroit. To this day, both parades welcome tourists and locals alike and are widely televised. Several U.S. cities host a Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning, welcoming runners of all ages to burn off some calories in anticipation of the day’s feast.

Recipes, décor and hosting tips: Find recipes, menus and more at Food Network, AllRecipes, Food & Wine and Epicurious.

Vegetarian guests? Please guests sans the turkey with menu suggestions from the New York Times, here and here.

Thanksgiving crafts: Adults can create DIY décor with help from HGTV, and kids can be entertained before the big dinner with craft suggestions from Parents, Parenting and Disney.

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