The fourth Thursday of November marks a beloved American holiday centered around food, family, and gratitude. Thanksgiving Day conjures images of a bountiful table filled with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pie.
This feast commemorates a mythologized meal between Native Americans and newly arrived Pilgrims in 1621. While the popular narrative overlooks some harsher historical truths, Thanksgiving remains a unifying cultural tradition reminding us to be thankful for life’s blessings.
This national holiday has evolved over centuries, accumulating symbols, customs, and caricatures from turkeys pardoned by presidents to excited shoppers lining up for Black Friday sales. As we approach this year’s Thanksgiving, let’s explore the facets shaping this cherished event.
The Meaning of Thanksgiving
At its core, Thanksgiving is a day for giving thanks and appreciating life’s blessings. While the imagery associated with the holiday often centers around a bountiful fall harvest, the meaning goes deeper than just gratefulness for a successful harvest season. Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to gather with loved ones and reconnect over a hearty feast.
Giving Thanks for the Fall Harvest
The harvest imagery reflects the historical roots of the holiday. The Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 celebrated the fall harvest which provided them with food and provisions for the coming winter. Their agricultural bounty and survival was due to the agricultural expertise of the Wampanoag people. Today, symbols of the fall harvest such as corn, squash, wheat and other crops still appear as Thanksgiving decorations, representing gratitude for nature’s gifts.
Giving Thanks More Broadly
On a more general level, Thanksgiving encourages taking time to express gratitude for all that we have. The people, experiences, freedoms, comforts, and opportunities that enrich our lives. Spending quality time with family and friends allows us to appreciate their role in our lives. Thanksgiving festivities aim to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
Quality Time with Loved Ones
Thanksgiving brings families together across distances and generations. Multiple households unite, with people traveling from near and far. The holiday facilitates bonding between parents, children, grandparents, aunts/uncles, cousins and family friends. With busy daily lives, these moments of reconnection are precious.
Enjoying a Large Feast
The centerpiece of Thanksgiving is the indulgent feast. Turkeys, hams, potatoes, stuffing, casseroles, vegetables, bread, pies and more tempt our appetites. Cooking and baking all these treats requires effort and teamwork. The meal represents caring, nurturing, and comfort – a tangible expression of using life’s gifts to nourish ourselves and those we care about.
The History of Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving grew out of a long tradition of harvest festivals and days of prayer to give thanks. These types of celebrations date back thousands of years globally. The specific American holiday has origins in the early 1600s colonial period, though it did not become nationally recognized until the 1800s.
Ancient Harvest Festivals
Nearly all agricultural societies have had harvest festivals to celebrate bountiful crops and give thanks for vital food supplies. Historical evidence of these celebrations dates back over 3,000 years to ancient Egyptian and Chinese harvest festivals. Ancient Greeks had autumn rituals to honor Demeter, the goddess of the harvest.
Early Thanksgiving Celebrations
In North America, Spanish explorers and settlers like Cortés and De Soto held thanksgiving feasts with indigenous groups as early as the 1520s. English settlers observed informal days of thanks in the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies in the early 1600s. These expressed gratitude for survival, good fortune, and assistance from Native tribes.
The Pilgrims’ Harvest Feast of 1621
The famous “First Thanksgiving” at Plymouth Plantation came after the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest in 1621. Joined by 91 Wampanoag tribespeople with bounties of deer, fowl, fish, and grain, this 3-day feast was mostly to celebrate the harvest. It set the stage for the American Thanksgiving tradition.
The Push to Formalize Thanksgiving
After the American Revolution, political leaders periodically called for national Thanksgiving. Sarah Hale’s letters urging national unity led President Lincoln to proclaim the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving in 1863. By 1942, Thanksgiving was established permanently as a federal holiday by Congress.
Fun Facts about Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving delivers some tasty trivia to chew on! From turkey statistics to the origins of football viewing, here are some fun facts about Thanksgiving traditions.
- The average Thanks giving turkey weighs 15 pounds and feeds about 10 dinner guests.
- Allow 24 hours of thawing time for every 4-5 pounds of frozen turkey. A 15-pounder takes 3 days!
- About 88% of Americans chow down on tasty turkey, averaging about 1.3 pounds per person.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
- The Macy’s parade tradition started in 1924 with 400 employees marching in NYC.
- Giant character balloons first floated through the Manhattan skies in 1927.
- Over 50 million people watch the parade on TV with over 3 million attending in person.
- Football on Thanks giving began with college match-ups as early as 1876.
- The first NFL Thanks giving games broadcast on TV were in 1956. Watching the games is now a huge tradition.
Pumpkin Pie Love
- 90 million pounds of pumpkins get canned for pies each Thanks giving.
- An estimated 50 million pumpkin pies are eaten every Thanks giving.
- Illinois produces the most pumpkin for pies, over 90% of the total!
- Some quirky traditions include the annual presidential turkey pardon started by Kennedy and competitive turkey trots, runs, and dog parades across America before the feasting begins!