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Five Thanksgiving Traditions

Published: December 5, 2022

November 17, 2014

Thanksgiving Day falls on the fourth Thursday of November every year and is one of the most popular American holidays. People across the country gather on Thanksgiving to share a holiday meal and reflect on all the things they’re grateful for.

The holiday originated as a harvest festival in 1621 when the pilgrims in Plymouth gathered their first harvest after receiving the wisdom and help of the native people of the land. They organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of Native Americans, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. The festival lasted for three days. In 1789, President George Washington declared November 26th a thanksgiving day of prayer, but it didn’t become a national holiday until 1863 when President Lincoln made a proclamation after a years-long campaign from author Sarah Hale, known as the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”

Today, there are many holiday traditions for this feast of thanks, from holiday parades down Main Street to parades of side-dishes down the dining room table. Here are five Thanksgiving traditions to celebrate.

1. Traditional Thanksgiving Meal: The main dish most associated with Thanksgiving is turkey.  Turkey may or may not have been on the table when the Pilgrims hosted the first feast in 1621, but today, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, according to the National Turkey Federation. And what would Thanksgiving be without the sides? Some of the most popular side dishes are sweet potatoes, squash, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and stuffing. Pumpkin pie and other pies are often served for dessert, although the pilgrims had no ovens or sugar supplies so most likely did not serve pie or other sweets.

2. Pardoning the Turkey: By the mid-20th century, the president of the United States has “pardoned” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year, sparing the birds from becoming dinner and sending them to a farm for retirement. A number of United States governors also perform the annual turkey pardoning ritual. In 2021, President Biden pardoned two turkeys named Peanut Butter and Jelly in the White House Rose Garden.

3. Thanksgiving Day Parades: Parades have become a special part of the holiday in cities and towns across America. But the largest and most famous is New York City’s Thanksgiving Day Parade presented by Macy’s department store since 1924. The Macy’s parade attracts 2 to 3 million spectators along its 2.5-mile route and draws a huge television audience. It features marching bands, performers, elaborate floats, and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters. The parade starts with Tom Turkey leading the procession and ends with Santa Claus waving to the crowd from his trademark sleigh.

4. Watching Football: Football is the most popular spectator sport in the U.S. and the notion of football games on Thanksgiving Day dates back as early as 1876, shortly after the game was invented. Virtually every level of football, from high school to college and the NFL plays football on Thanksgiving Day or during the holiday weekend. So, root for your favorite team on Thanksgiving!

5. Giving Back: Volunteering or donating food is one of the best ways to give thanks for all our bounty. Many communities hold annual food drives to collect non-perishable packaged and canned foods for those in need. Many organizations also host Thanksgiving dinners so that everyone has a place to enjoy a warm meal. Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, a national network of nonprofit, volunteer-based organizations committed to relieving isolation and loneliness among elders, relies on volunteers to deliver Thanksgiving meals to elderly shut-ins. It’s a great opportunity to teach kids about giving back to their community and provides family bonding time on an important American holiday.

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