6 Thanksgiving Traditions in America
My favorite time of the year, and that of many Americans, is the holiday season which begins with Thanksgiving Day and extends to New Year's Day. This is a time for family and friends to gather and give thanks for all we have and to celebrate the birth of Christ. Then we ring in the new year, a chance for a fresh beginning with new resolutions.
But before opening presents and ringing in the new year comes my favorite part, Thanksgiving Day dinner. Here is the true time and place to give thanks for all we have in life, and the most important of all thanks for family and friends. To be able to break bread with our favorite people and give thanks is one of the best times of the year, and many Americans feel the same way.
Our Thanksgiving Day traditions have been in place for a long time, and I love the customs our family and many others follow on that important day. It is full of thanksgiving, but also some other fun activities that we gather to enjoy together with loved ones.
I have narrowed down a list to a few of my favorite Thanksgiving Day traditions, and I also provide some historical context for how they came to be the traditions we look forward to. I bet some or all of the traditions listed below are shared by you, too.
Six Important Thanksgiving Day Traditions
- The Turkey
- Cranberry Sauce
- Cracking the Wishbone
- Macy's Parade
- Thanksgiving Day Football
- Holiday Movies
For me, Thanksgiving Day dinner is not complete or traditional unless there is "a big fat turkey from down on grandpa's farm" served up with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and sweet potatoes or yams. And, of course, pumpkin pie.
I know that ham and chicken are also served at the Thanksgiving Day table, but for me, turkey is it—the most important ingredient to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
When did we start eating turkey on Thanksgiving?
How long has serving turkey been an American tradition and how did it get started? Historians today do not believe turkey was served at that first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation. There was no turkey at that important meal between the pilgrims and Native Americans back in 1621.
Then what exactly did they eat? Historians say that poultry of some sort may have been served, just not turkey, as it was never mentioned in historical diaries or documents of the original meal between the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe. What dishes were mentioned as part of the meal? Venison and—surprise—lobster from the Atlantic Ocean. Historians and researchers are not exactly sure when turkey made its appearance at the Thanksgiving Day table.
The Fourth Thursday of November
One key person, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879) was instrumental in getting the turkey bird served for the Thanksgiving meal by all Americans. She also petitioned President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving an official holiday in the U.S. In 1863, Lincoln granted her wish and proclaimed the fourth Thursday of November as the national holiday to celebrate that first Thanksgiving. And today we are still celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. It is now part of our official traditions and holidays.
Cranberry Sauce or Relish
Cranberry sauce—or relish, depending on how you make it—is my favorite accompaniment to turkey and the trimmings: stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole. This is the traditional meal I eat on Thanksgiving Day, and I love the added tangy taste of cranberries and the colorful dark red it adds to the plate.
Cranberry sauce has always been known as a sweet dessert or relish, and it has been popularly served at Thanksgiving meals for at least a hundred years. Cranberries were certainly present and growing in America in 1621, and very easily picked by the pilgrims and Native Americans, but they were probably not eaten on that first Thanksgiving. Sugar is the key ingredient of cranberry sauce, and sugar would have been a dearly expensive luxury item for making jam, cranberry sauce, or relish.
It is unclear just when cranberries made their appearance on the dinner table, but by 1663, historians have found written evidence that tells us a sweet sauce made from cranberries did appear.
The New Jersey Star-Ledger, a newspaper at the time of the Civil War, reported that "Cranberries officially became part of the national Thanksgiving tradition in 1864 when General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberries be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal." Whether cranberries were used before that at the Thanksgiving meal is a mystery today.
Cracking the Wishbone
When we were young, my sister and I always looked forward to cracking the wishbone. Since we always spent Thanksgiving Day back in Pennsylvania with our grandparents, we each vied to crack that wishbone so our secret wish would come true.
With my grandparents on the maternal side of the family, my sister and I had to compete for that wishbone with nine other cousins. If we didn't get to crack the wishbone that year, we always had our paternal grandparents, of which we were the only grandchildren, from whom to claim the wishbone.
The wishbone, also known as the furcula, is taken from the carcass of the turkey and dried out. Two people hang on to each side of the wishbone and crack it apart, and whomever gets the bigger piece assumes his/her secret wish will be granted.
This tradition actually goes back thousands of years. Many ancient civilizations passed it down to one another, and eventually it got passed down to Americans. Who will win the coveted spots of wishbone crackers this Thanksgiving Day?
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
This is the fun part! Watching this parade on Thanksgiving Day morning has become an annual tradition in many American families and especially in mine. With the turkey roasting in the oven, even Mom could join us to watch the parade.
The parade revelers, floats, and balloons march in front of Macy's department store in New York City in what has become a classic Thanksgiving tradition. Millions of people line the street in NYC each year and fight the cold to see the great floats in person. Millions more watch the parade on TV in the morning.
Children and adults alike enjoy many floats, best of all the huge balloons of favorite cartoons and Disney characters. Young children anxiously await Santa's appearance as the last float of the parade, and he always appears with his reindeer at noontime. Santa brings with him the official beginning of the Christmas season. He will appear in Macy's store so children can sit on his lap and tell Santa what they want him to bring for Christmas presents. The storefront windows in NYC are also decorated, often with moving characters and stories of the Christmas season.
History of the Macy's Parade
The Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade has been a fixture in our Thanksgiving Day traditions since 1924. It began as "Macy's Christmas Parade" and was first kicked off by the Macy's company employees.
Records tell us that live animals from the Central Park Zoo were walked through the NYC streets and down the parade route. By 1927, the parade had exchanged the live animals for floats. This event was so popular with the masses that Macy's decided to make it an annual tradition. Of course, it helped to bring the masses to Macy's to begin the Christmas shopping season.
During WWII, however, there were no parades from 1942–44 because of a national helium shortage. Balloons were donated to the U.S. government to offer up as scrap rubber. By the end of WWII, because of the hiatus, people sorely missed Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and therefore the tradition grew even more popular as a Thanksgiving tradition.
Today, approximately 3.5 million people arrive in person to see the floats up close and personal each year.
Thanksgiving Day Football
There is no way I could not write about the Thanksgiving Day football games. This is an American Thanksgiving tradition just as much as the big fat turkey. After dinner, it is so fun to watch the games together as a family as our meal digests in our tummies. I do feel sad, though, for the players who miss their family's Thanksgiving Day dinners and festivities because they have to play. Their Thanksgiving sacrifice makes a great tradition for the rest of us.
Of course, there are some that think this should not be a Thanksgiving Day tradition and the players should be home with their families. But the NFL makes too much money on Thanksgiving Day for that to happen anytime soon.
In my family, turkey and football go hand in hand. My brother-in-law, nephews, and the other men look forward to the many games. The women sometimes gather in the kitchen to talk, but sometimes we join in on the games ourselves.
According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the playing of football on Thanksgiving Day was originally the tradition among high schools and colleges. That tradition has subsided, and the NFL has picked up that tradition. Modern day football as a Thanksgiving Day tradition with the NFL goes back to 1934, when the Detroit Lions decided to play against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day. The Lions' owner, George A. Richards, wanted to bolster his team's standing in Detroit.
When the Lions played the Chicago Bears, the game attracted 26,000 people who watched it in the University of Detroit stadium. The game sold out two weeks beforehand. Since that day, NFL football on Thanksgiving became a tradition.
The Detroit Lions have played in a Thanksgiving Day game every year since then, with only a brief hiatus from 1939–1944 (WWII). The Dallas Cowboys have played every year on Thanksgiving Day since 1966, only missing two years, 1975 and 1977. Today, football and Thanksgiving Day are synonymous.
The Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
I have several Thanksgiving and Christmas time films, and The Miracle on 34th Street is one of them. The story itself includes the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as part of the plot.
This film is usually shown many times between Thanksgiving and Christmas and has become part of my Thanksgiving tradition. It is usually on TV the night of Thanksgiving or sometime during the long weekend, and I watch it every year. Yes, I watch the 1947 version, which is in black and white.
It is the story a department store (Macy's) Santa Claus who claims to be the real Santa. The story takes place between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day in NYC. Of course, the whole city thinks this Santa Claus is cuckoo. The director of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade has a seven-year-old daughter to whom she denies the Santa myth, as she believes it is not good for her daughter. She thinks she is saving her daughter from great disappointments in life. When the little girl's dream comes true at the end, the question is: did Santa work his "magic" for it to come true?
The film was written and directed by George Seaton and is based on the original story by Valentine Davies. It stars Maureen O'Hara (mother), John Payne (attorney), Edmund Gwenn (Santa) and Natalie Wood (the child). It is one of the most heartwarming of stories of Thanksgiving and Christmas in the city. The film has been remade several times, but this original one has always been my favorite.
Because Thanksgiving Day is the official beginning of Christmastime in America, the film is shown anytime after that day. I always look forward to seeing this movie, and it has become a classic to watch during the holiday season. Of course, today, you can also rent it on DVD.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1995)
Other great movies my family and I watch as tradition at Thanksgiving are the hilarious Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and the romantic Serendipity. Planes, Trains and Automobiles starring Steve Martin and deceased John Candy is the story of an uber professional man (Martin) trying to get home to his family for Thanksgiving, but weather hampers his way of getting home.
He runs into a salesman, the obnoxious and over-bearing John Candy, and they join forces to get home to their families in time for Thanksgiving Dinner using different modes of transportation. Martin, the suave professional, learns the true meaning of Thanksgiving and the true meaning of friendship from slick salesman John Candy. Hilarity reigns throughout the movie as the two men battle their way home. A great watch after Thanksgiving dinner for laughs and appreciation of family and friends.
Serendipity is the perfect movie for hopeless and hopeful romantics alike to watch. The word serendipity means the occurrence of events by chance, or destiny by chance, in a happy and beneficial way. Sara (Kate Beckinsale) and Jonathan (John Cusack) meet in NYC at the holiday season quite by accident and, even though both of them are already in relationships, they feel the pull of mutual attraction They end up sharing sundaes at the chocolate shop Serendipity in NYC. After spending the day together, they both become confused about the current relationships they are in and the joy and attraction they feel for one another.
Jonathan wants Sara's phone number, but Sara wants fate to work things out. So she writes her name and phone number on a five dollar bill and Jonathan writes his name and phone number in the novel Love in the Time of Cholera. Sara says if the attraction is true, fate will bring them back together. The five dollar bill with Sara's name and number will fall into Jonathan's hands and the novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, with Jonathan's name and phone number, will fall into Sara's hands.
Over the next several months, both Sara and Jonathan come to terms with their current relationships, and both want this new relationship. Will Sara and Jonathan meet again? Only fate and serendipity know the outcome. It is a delightful film about how life is full of decisions one must make but also how life's chances can determine one's fate. This is another of my favorite films and one I highly recommend. Watching it on Thanksgiving evening starts the Christmas season for me.
Note: I never, never shop on Thanksgiving Day, and I usually try to miss Black Friday too.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Suzette Walker