Of all the holidays celebrated in the USA, perhaps none are as special or quintessentially American as Thanksgiving. Taking place on the fourth Thursday of November every year, Thanksgiving originated as a harvest festival in the early 1600s. Since its first celebration, the autumn holiday has centered around a strong message of gratitude and giving thanks for one’s fortunes; over time, Thanksgiving has become a day just as much about family, food and fall festivities as it is about thankfulness.
From the history of Thanksgiving to today’s popular football games and annual parades, there’s so much to learn about this iconic American holiday! We break it all down for you here, so if you ever get the chance, you’ll know how to celebrate Thanksgiving like a true American.
In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers—while many were looking for religious freedom, many too were lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. After a 3-month-long voyage, these passengers (now commonly known as Pilgrims) landed in Massachusetts harbor and quickly went to work settling a village that they called Plymouth, in honor of their home.
Between their long, taxing sea voyage and the harsh winter conditions in New England, malnutrition and illness sadly ran rampant through the Plymouth colony. It wasn’t until a Native American named Squanto—a member of the Pawtuxet tribe—taught the settlers how to provide for themselves that they started to become stronger and savvier in their new home. Squanto showed the colonists how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped them forge an important alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, that would go on to last for more than half a century.
About a year later in November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast to commemorate the occasion. As a gesture of gratitude and good will, he invited many of the colony’s local Native American allies, as well as the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. This feast—which lasted for a full 3 days—is now remembered as America’s “first Thanksgiving.”
For the rest of the 17th century and well into the 18th century, celebratory feasts continued to mark successful harvests and the ends of droughts. In 1789, after the American Revolution, President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the United States national government—in this proclamation, he encouraged Americans to express thanks for the long-awaited conclusion to the country’s war for independence.
Years later, in 1863 at the height of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln formally established Thanksgiving as a national holiday. It was officially scheduled for the final Thursday in November—the same day it is celebrated every year in America today!
Gratitude is still at the heart of every Thanksgiving celebration in America—but the most iconic traditions certainly center around food. The holiday is a special chance to share a bountiful meal with family and friends, with preparation and cooking beginning in the early hours of the morning typically. It’s common to see all members of an American family chipping in and helping with the meal throughout the day as a way to bond and spend quality time together.
The greatest Thanksgiving food staple is, without a doubt, turkey. Historians may disagree on whether turkey was present at the first Thanksgiving in 1621—but today, it has become nearly synonymous with the holiday. According to the National Turkey Federation, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat the bird on Thanksgiving—whether it’s roasted, baked or even deep-fried!
Other traditional Thanksgiving foods include stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, sweet yams, cranberry sauce, and a variety of desserts like cakes, pies and cookies. Pie is an especially common dessert for Thanksgiving, with apple, pumpkin, pecan and chocolate crème pie being among the most popular.
Aside from food and family time, there are several other aspects of Thanksgiving that make it a favorite holiday among Americans. Thanksgiving is a day to give back and show gratitude for what you have by volunteering at local charities. Food drives are especially popular—and many organizations will host free turkey dinners for the less fortunate.
Thanksgiving is also a perfect opportunity for communities to come together and enjoy the crisp, fall weather in the form of road races; or, as they’re affectionately called in many areas of the USA—turkey trots! Running, jogging or walking in a road race on Thanksgiving is a popular way to get some exercise in anticipation of eating a nice, large feast later in the day. Of course, many choose to spectate instead of participate—which is another, equally-wonderful way to connect with community members and be a part of the action!
Speaking of spectating, parades have also become an integral part of the Thanksgiving holiday in many cities and towns across the USA. The biggest and most famous one by far is the New York City Thanksgiving Day Parade, presented by Macy’s department store since 1924. Every year, it attracts some 2 to 3 million spectators along its 2.5-mile route and draws an enormous television audience as well. Featuring marching bands, musical guests, dancers, elaborate floats carrying various celebrities and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters, the iconic parade is a must-watch—whether it’s in person, or in the comfort of your own home.
Another Thanksgiving tradition for many families is watching American football games! Tuning in for professional American football games on Thanksgiving is a tradition that dates back to the earliest era of the sport in the late 19th century. The National Football League—known to most as the NFL, and as the definitive source of professional football in the USA—has played games on Thanksgiving every year since its creation in 1920. Collegiate football teams will also play on Thanksgiving, creating a strong love for the tradition at a younger age and carrying it through to adulthood. Whether you’re watching the game at home or at the stadium itself, it’s a way to be part of the American community on a day that is particularly important to the country.