Thanksgiving (Credit: rawpixel/CCO)

Thanksgiving, celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday of November, is one of the most popular holidays on the American calendar. Though traditionally a religious and cultural celebration, it is now observed by all. The origin of the fun tradition, which will be observed on November 22, 2018, can be traced back to a harvest feast in 1621. It was organized by Governor William Bradford to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first successful corn harvest.

While the celebration, which lasted for three days, was never repeated, it inspired numerous annual harvest festivals throughout the country. In 1789, George Washington tried to unify the various celebrations by suggesting a national day of Thanksgiving. The nation’s Founding Father and first president thought a single holiday would be a good way to commemorate the "happy conclusion to the country's war of independence and the successful ratification of the US Constitution." But the idea received little public support and was abandoned shortly after.

September 1863 letter from editor Sarah Josepha Hale to President Abraham Lincoln discussing the need for a national Thanksgiving holiday (Credit: Sarah Josepha Hale/Wikimedia Commons/CC)

In 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the popular nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” began a petition for a national Thanksgiving celebration through editorials and letters. It took the magazine editor 17 years, but in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln finally made Thanksgiving an official holiday to be celebrated annually on the last Thursday of November. In 1941, to clear up any confusion, the US Congress reset the date to the fourth Thursday of the month. While food and family remain at the forefront of the celebrations, several new traditions have been introduced over the years. Here are a few that are popular across most American households.

Gobble Gobble: How The Turkey Became A Thanksgiving Staple

Turkeys are the bird of choice on Thanksgiving (Credit:

Given that there were plenty of wild turkeys in 1621, it would make sense to assume the birds were served at the original feast. However, according to historians, the colonists and the Native Americans invited at the event, ate duck or goose. While nobody is quite sure how the poor turkey ended up becoming the poultry of choice, there are some theories. Some think it was because the birds were cheaper and easier to raise. Others believe it was Josepha Hale who suggested the occasion be celebrated with foods such as turkey. Since President Lincoln loved roasted turkey, he gladly complied and featured it on the first White House Thanksgiving menu – starting a tradition that has led to the consumption of over 50 million turkeys annually! The magazine editor was also responsible for suggesting that stuffing be part of the holiday meal.

Pumpkin Pie

Delicious pumpkin pie (Credit: Daniel Catt/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

While it is now hard to imagine a Thanksgiving meal without pumpkin pie, the delectable dessert was not part of the original feast. Pilgrims did not, after all, have butter or flour to make a pie crust, or an oven to bake it to perfection. If the gourd was featured at all, it would have been more likely to be in the form of a savory soup made, and served, in a hollowed out pumpkin. As it turns out, this delicious ritual can also be credited to Josepha Hale, who published several pie recipes while petitioning for the holiday.

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberries (Credit: Monica Nelson/Flickr/CC 2.0)

Since sugar was hard to obtain in 1621, cranberry sauce, as we know it today, was unlikely to have been served at the Pilgrims’ feast. While the first record of the condiment, which complements turkey perfectly, can be found as far back as 1663, it most likely became a Thanksgiving tradition in 1864, when General Ulysses Grant requested cranberries be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal.

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

Tom the turkey and Underdog at the 1979 edition of Macy’s Parade (Credit: Jon Harder/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

For most Americans, no Thanksgiving Day is complete without a peek at the impressive floats featured in the massive Macy’s Parade. The fun tradition, started by the department store employees in 1924, initially featured animals from the Central Park Zoo. Though the animals have long been replaced by giant displays, the parade continues to be extremely popular. Every year, an estimated 3.5 million people gather along Manhattan’s 77th Street and Central Park West to watch the procession live, while another 50 million view it on television from the comfort of their homes.


Thanksgiving Greetings (Credit: Wikipedia Commons/CC)

As you probably already guessed, the Pilgrims did not watch or even play football. The Thanksgiving game tradition was the brainchild of the American Intercollegiate Football Association (IFA), which came up with the idea in 1876 to increase the popularity of the still nascent sport. The first holiday game, played between Yale and Princeton, was such a success that Thanksgiving became the date of choice for the IFA Championships. In 1934, after IFA abandoned the tradition, the National Football League’s (NFL) Detroit Lions seized the opportunity to try to attract more local fans to live games. The inaugural match, against the undefeated Chicago Bears, was sold out two weeks before the event, and hundreds of people had to be turned away from the gates. Since then, except for a short hiatus from 1939-1944, the team has played every year! The Dallas Cowboys joined the tradition in 1966, and the two games, held back to back, have become a popular Thanksgiving tradition since.

Thanksgiving Around The World

China’s colorful Mid-Autumn Festival (Credit: Shizhao/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5)

Thanksgiving, or similar holidays, are also celebrated in other countries on different days and with different traditions. Canadians observe Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October, while Germany celebrates, Erntedankfest, or Harvest Festival, in early October. In China, the mid-Autumn Fesival, or “moon festival,” which takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, is a three-day event featuring moon cakes and harvest foods such as grapes and crabs. Japan’s Kinro Kansha No Hi, or Labor Thanksgiving Day, commemorated every November 23, celebrates citizens for all their hard work throughout the year.

Have a Happy and Safe Thanksgiving!

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