Thanksgiving History and Traditions

Why does America celebrate Thanksgiving? Who made it a national holiday? How much turkey do we eat? Find answers to these questions and more about Turkey Day.


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The first Thanksgiving in 1621 was a three-day-long feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians to celebrate the Plymouth colony's first successful harvest. They ate duck and deer meat roasted over a fire, corn ground into porridge, seafood, cabbage, and squash. Turkey, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes aren't mentioned in the only written account of this first Thanksgiving. The event included activities such as ball games, target shooting, singing, and dancing.

Many well-known people attended the first Thanksgiving celebration, including Wampanoag leader Massasoit, Squanto (who taught the Pilgrims to plant native crops), Governor William Bradford, Captain Myles Standish, and religious leader William Brewster.

For more than 100 years, American settlers celebrated Turkey Day informally. An official Thanksgiving Day occurred in 1777, when George Washington declared December 18th a day for "solemn thanksgiving and praise." It wasn't until the 19th century, however, that the modern Thanksgiving holiday took shape. Following a 36-year letter-writing campaign by magazine editor Sarah Hale, Abraham Lincoln finally made Thanksgiving Day a national holiday in 1863.

The only glitch in Thanksgiving celebrations occurred in 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt changed the holiday from the last Thursday in November to the next-to-last Thursday to extend the Christmas shopping season. After public outrage, he signed legislation in 1941 to make Thanksgiving Day the fourth Thursday of each November.

Thanksgiving Traditions

What are your favorite Thanksgiving traditions? These are common activities that Americans enjoy on Thanksgiving Day.

  1. Savoring the Turkey According to the National Turkey Federation, nearly 88 percent of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving. Dating back to New England harvest traditions, eating turkey is the enduring symbol of the holiday. In the South, some prefer their turkey deep-fried rather than roasted in the traditional Yankee fashion. No matter how the turkey is prepared, Americans will eat more than 730 million pounds of turkey alone on this holiday.
  2. Watching the Thanksgiving Parade In addition to the big football games, most Americans watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, one of the biggest and most famous parades. Whether you watch it on TV or go to New York City to see it in person, the day would not be complete without the sky-high balloons, the Radio City Rockettes, and Santa bringing up the rear on his sleigh. Locals and visitors alike congregate the night before the parade to watch the floats as they're inflated and to stake out a place for great sight lines the next morning.
  3. Holiday Volunteering As Americans gather to share the year's bounty, families also reach out to those less fortunate. Volunteering at soup kitchens is a time-honored way to express our thanks and give back to the community; many organizations hold food drives and host free dinners for those in need during the holiday season.
  4. Pulling Apart the Wishbone Who gets the wishbone in your family? Ever since the time of the Etruscans (an ancient Italian civilization), people have been pulling apart the forked bone from a turkey, chicken, or other fowl and making a wish. The Romans brought the tradition with them when they conquered England, and the English brought it to America.
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