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Celebrating Thanksgiving in America with a traditional roasted turkey

Traditional Ways of Celebrating Thanksgiving in America


When Is Thanksgiving Day and Why Is Thanksgiving Celebrated

Every year, Americans look forward to the fourth Thursday of November when Thanksgiving Day is celebrated throughout the nation to express gratitude for life's goodness and bounty. Thanksgiving Day is a secular holiday that traditionally launches the ‘holiday season.’ It’s the busiest travel time of the year with family members traversing long distances to take part in celebrations among their loved ones.

Thanksgiving Food Traditions: Talking Turkey

The centerpiece of most Thanksgiving celebrations is a bountiful meal attended by the host’s friends and family in which turkey is the main course. Although there is no record of turkey having been served at the first Thanksgiving celebration feast held in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation attendee Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote in a letter about the event that a turkey hunt had occurred before the meal. This may explain the tradition of serving turkey in later celebrations. But wild turkeys, native to North America, were also a logical meal choice for early celebrants. Today, over 50 million turkeys are served on Thanksgiving in the U.S. with more than 90% of Americans eating it.

Many families involve the whole in meal preparation and a main accompaniment to the turkey is stuffing—typically a mix of bread cubes, chopped celery, carrots, onions and sage stuffed inside the turkey and roasting with it or cooked separately and served alongside it. Other possible stuffing ingredients include chestnuts, chopped bacon or sausage, and raisins or apples. Other Thanksgiving meal mainstays are gravy, cranberry sauce and side dishes like sweet potatoes, string beans, mashed potatoes and cornbread. Pie is a common dessert and the most popular flavors are pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato, mincemeat and apple. Vegetarians may opt for tofu turkey or various fruit and vegetable dishes. Beer and wine are often served, and some people even devise holiday-themed cocktails.

The diverse cultural composition of the American population means that a huge number of households integrate native culinary traditions into their Thanksgiving Day meal, lending it unique flair. Families may serve dishes such as couscous, pasta or curries.

The Turkey Wishbone Tradition

Breaking the turkey’s wishbone is a common Thanksgiving meal-time tradition. The practice started with the ancient Romans who would break chicken bones apart and hold onto them in the belief that they would convey mysterious powers and good fortune.

The notion evolved into groups of two making wishes on a single bone, then breaking it, with the holders of the larger piece being granted their wishes. Over time, the competition came to involve just two people pulling on opposite ends of a dried bone. The game made its way to England in the 16th century and was named “merrythought.”

In the New World, the Pilgrims would play tug-of-war with the bones of wild turkey rather than chicken. The word ‘wishbone’ emerged in the mid-1800s, just about the time that President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as an official national holiday. The wishbone is a forked bone (the furcula) that is actually a fusion of two clavicles located between the neck and breast of the bird. To make the bone more brittle and make carving easier, some cooks remove the wishbone before roasting the turkey and dry it out in the oven.  

Thanksgiving Harvest

The Table Centerpiece

The Cornucopia, a horn-shaped basket overflowing with flowers, fruit, nuts and vegetables, is often used to decorate the Thanksgiving table. The word cornucopia stems from the Latin term for horn of plenty; the cornucopia is a longstanding symbol of the harvest bounty dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Expressing Gratitude and Charitable Activities

At many Thanksgiving gatherings, dinner guests take turns stating aloud what they are most grateful for. Many other Americans spend all or part of the day helping others less fortunate than themselves by volunteering at local homeless shelters, churches and other centers; participating in food drives; donating to meal delivery programs for seniors and those living with disabilities, as well as local food banks; and delivering Thanksgiving meals to those who are too ill or old to leave their homes.

Turkey Trots

Many town and cities across American conduct “Turkey Trot” races to get the holiday season off to a healthy start. Runner participants dress up in a Thanksgiving-related costume and run a short distance–typically five kilometers. Turkey Trot organizers frequently ask runner to bring canned foods to donate to non-profit organizations involved with feeding those in need.

Historic Thanksgiving Parade

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Millions of American households watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade—an annual holiday tradition that was begun in 1924 by Macy's employees who wanted to celebrate their immigration to the land of freedom. The Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade® marks the start of the holiday season with a beloved spectacle featuring giant helium balloons, floats of wonder, pulse-pounding marching bands, engaging performance groups, celebrity appearances and our special Santa Claus.

More than 8,000 participants, some donning clown costumes, handling balloon giants or striking up the band, set off down the streets of Manhattan at the sound of the time-honored catchphrase "Let's Have a Parade." With a live audience more than 3.5 million strong and a nationwide television gathering of more than 50 million viewers, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is the nation's most beloved holiday pageant.

Visitors to Manhattan can get a sneak peek at the Parade balloons the day before Thanksgiving by attending the Macy’s Giant Balloon Inflation from 3 pm to 10 pm.

Thanksgiving Football

Watching Football

Watching football on television is an integral part of many families’ Thanksgiving Day activities. Yale and Princeton first played on Thanksgiving in 1876, when football was still evolving from a rugby hybrid into the sport played today. Later, the Intercollegiate Football Association championship game was played on the holiday. The Universities of Michigan and Chicago also created a famed holiday rivalry, and by the late 1890s thousands of football games were taking place every Thanksgiving. When the National Football League (NFL) was founded in 1920, it began hosting up to six Thanksgiving contests annually.

The first Detroit Lions game, which took place in 1934, was conceived by G.A. Richards, who owned the team. The game was played at the University of Detroit Stadium and broadcast nationally on NBC’s radio network—the first ever network broadcast event. Since then, Detroit has played a game every year skipping only the period during WWII. And the Dallas Cowboys have played on Thanksgiving every year since 1966 except 1975 and 1977. A third game with rotating host teams has been played every year since 2006.

Black Friday at Macy’s

Known as the “biggest shopping day of the year,” Black Friday occurs the day after Thanksgiving. Macy’s launched the retail phenomenon back in 1924, a week after the first Macy’s parade took place. Ever since, Macy’s has been at the forefront of Black Friday deals and discounts, and the retailer runs pre-Black Friday savings events on Thanksgiving Day as well as Cyber Monday deals (for the Monday after Thanksgiving).

During the Black Friday sale event, Macy’s customers can purchase a vast selection of high-style merchandise at drastically reduced prices. Shopping during Macy’s Black Friday Sale is an excellent way to get huge savings on holiday gift purchases—from clothing, shoes and accessories to home essentials and furniture.