THE HISTORY OF THANKSGIVING TRADITIONS
By Josh Osman and Mia Lane
On the fourth Thursday in November each year, millions of Americans join their families and friends in celebrating Thanksgiving, by eating, watching football and enjoying the company of their loved ones. As with any national holiday, there are traditions that are adhered to, year in and year out, but whilst many people who don’t celebrate Thanksgiving just see it as a holiday filled with feasting and football, there are in fact many more practices that take place over this weekend.
It was initially a celebration of harvest; the very first Thanksgiving was celebrated in October 1621 after the first harvest of the Pilgrims in the New World, with the Native Americans as both a means of celebration and thanks for the help that had been given to them, specifically by one Native American: Squanto. Squanto had helped the Pilgrims learn to catch eels, grow corn, served as an interpreter for languages and gave them hospitality. Thanksgiving was literally the way for the Pilgrims to celebrate together with the Native Americans and thank them for all the hospitality and aid; it can be seen as the first symbol of gratitude and union, bringing the Pilgrims and Native Americans together in celebration.
Despite the joy of the event and celebration itself, it cannot be overlooked that the pilgrims did eventually massacre the Native Americans in brutal ways, such as flaying and committing genocide in towns. One of the famous examples is when they gifted clothing and blankets as an act of thanks. However, the gifts were deliberately ridden with Smallpox, eventually killing many of the Native Americans. Although they did share the First Thanksgiving as a celebration in 1621, it is believed that our modern Thanksgiving is only celebrated to honour the bloody victory of the battle the pilgrims fought against the Native Americans and thanking God for their victory. However, it is good that much of this history is forgotten and mostly ignored as it takes away from the joyful spirit of our Thanksgiving celebrations today and the wonderful traditions the American people have, to celebrate it.
As with most nationwide holidays, the food served is traditional and rarely varies from year to year. Turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, cornbread - these are all Thanksgiving staples, likely to be found on the tables of most families over the course of the holiday. However, what most people who do not celebrate Thanksgiving don’t know is this: there is a tradition of taking the wishbone out of the turkey, and tugged on by family members, attempting to break it. Whoever breaks off the largest piece of wishbone is granted one wish, making it a source of friendly - or sometimes not so friendly - competition between families and friends. This is because the First Thanksgiving had a dinner of large proportion with similar food to celebrate the harvest with the Native Americans. Due to the extreme size of the Thanksgiving dinner, it is said that Americans eat more on the day of Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year!
In order to show their thanks for their loved ones and possessions, many families donate to charity, either by collecting food and clothes for those less fortunate or, more simply, performing small acts of kindness around the time of Thanksgiving. Although gratitude is a quality that most aim to keep alive year-round, special emphasis is placed on showing thanks (unsurprising, given the name ‘Thanksgiving’), and it is not uncommon for family members to share what they are most thankful for before they share a traditional Thanksgiving meal. The concept of giving thanks on Thanksgiving is generally thought to be because of the Native Americans and as a means to thank them for hospitality, which is still true, but the giving of thanks was primarily towards God for a good harvest. This was due to the heavy religious prominence during the time and that it was traditional to have a festival or ceremony of thanks for God after every harvest, more so for good harvests.
One of the more public displays of thanks, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is an annual celebration, which is televised nationally and frequently lures large crowds of people onto the streets of New York. Started in 1924 by Macy’s department store and continued ever since, the parade boasts an array of attractions, from huge balloons of famous figures and extravagant floats to multiple musical performances from high school bands, as well as more acclaimed musicians. An incredibly exciting event, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is extremely popular with not only New Yorkers, but with the millions of Americans who tune in to NBC to watch each year. The first Thanksgiving Parade only happened four years before this in 1920 in Philadelphia, so there is not necessarily much history to the tradition of parades. However, since the first parade in Philadelphia was held in association with Gimbels, a large store that was in competition with Macy's until it was finally closed in 1986, some believe that Macy's began to hold a Thanksgiving parade to rival this, and did so extremely successfully; resulting in one of the most loved and popular traditions of Thanksgiving.
Football and Thanksgiving go hand in hand, so it is no surprise to discover that a large majority of people will either be playing or watching football on Thanksgiving. Football games held around Thanksgiving have always been a tradition in high schools and colleges, but became much more widespread following the NFL’s decision to schedule games then too. Traditionally, in fact until very recently, the games held on the day of Thanksgiving were the only matches played in that week, apart from on Monday and Sunday nights. Every Thanksgiving between 1934 and 1938, then again from 1945 onwards, the Detroit Lions have hosted a game; they were eventually followed by the Dallas Cowboys, founded in 1960, in 1966, who now also host a game on Thanksgiving every year. In 2006, a third Thanksgiving game was added to prime-time TV but does not have a set site or team. So, Thanksgiving really is an exciting day for fans of American football!
Another more public tradition is the president pardoning a turkey each year. When President Harry Truman pardoned a turkey in 1947 the day before it was eaten at the White House, the pardoning of the turkey became an annual occurrence, and still goes on today. To put it informally, there are 'legends' that the traditional pardoning of the turkey first came from the idea of Abraham Lincoln petting his son's pet turkey, actually a turkey for Christmas, but the tradition more likely stemmed from Harry Truman's pardoning in 1947. In fact, it was only in 1989 when turkey pardoning was made an official annual permanent tradition by George Bush when he became the president. Despite the fact that these turkeys are pardoned from being eaten at the Thanksgiving dinner, the sad truth is that they rarely ever live until the next Thanksgiving, because they are actually bred for size, having been bred to be eaten, so this makes them far unhealthier and less likely to survive for long than a turkey of average size.
For thrifty spenders, Thanksgiving brings with it the joy of Black Friday, now recognised as the ‘biggest shopping day of the year’. Each year, thousands of shoppers rush to their favourite stores, taking full advantage of sales and offers. Many shops open particularly early, at first they opened at 6 a.m. but nowadays some shops like Target (a large American supermarket that could be compared with the likes of ASDA or Tesco) and Macy's (an enormous department store similar to House of Fraser or Debenhams). Although it has been cited as the day that kicks off festive shopping since 1952, Black Friday is notorious for long queues and packed shops. Since 2006 in America, there have been 7 reported deaths and 98 reported injuries as a result of people either trying to secure a further place in the queue or trying to get an item before another person, so it is suggested that you steer clear of any large shopping centres, unless you are willing to take on the challenge!
So, as you can see, Thanksgiving is so much more than just food, shopping and football; it is a celebration of togetherness, and a chance to give thanks for the past year, whilst thinking to the year ahead. Despite the frankly detestable and bloody foundations of the festival and that over the years it has become less about the thanks and more about the celebrations, it is still an extremely beloved holiday that has been central to the lives of Americans for centuries, despite how the traditions and ideologies may have changed, and continues to be celebrated with vigour, enthusiasm and mirth.