How Thanksgiving Works

By: Allison Klein  | 
thanksgiving meal
Prepare to eat a lot of delicious food on Thanksgiving Day. bhofack2/iStock/Thinkstock

­Have you ever wondered why Americans gather around the table each year and prepare to eat food regarded as traditional, but rarely assembled as a meal the rest of the year? Turkey, gravy, corn, stuffing, cranberries and pies take center stage on Thanksgiving.

But Thanksgiving also stands out from other American holidays in the sense that it isn't tied to any specific religion, and you can pretty much celebrate it however you want. The only essential traditions are to enjoy a meal with friends or family and to give thanks for what you have. In the pantheon of holidays, Thanksgiving is about as simple as it gets.


­The holiday also honors American history, of course. In countless Thanksgiving plays, American children have told the story of the first Thanksgiving when the Pilgrims and the American Indians celebrated the autumn harvest in cooperation and acceptance.

Have you ever wondered where the particulars of this story and the other details of Thanksgiving actually come from? In this a­rticle, we'll look at the origins, traditions and history of Thanksgiving, as well as how turkeys came to symbolize the holiday. We'll also examine how other cultures celebrate Thanksgiving.


Thanksgiving Customs in Other Cultures

Ceres, Roman goddess
The Roman goddess Ceres rides a chariot. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We generally think of Thanksgiving as a uniquely American holiday, but there's actually a long tradition of harvest-time celebrations and thanksgiving celebrations.

­Every autumn, the ancient Greeks enjoyed a three-day festival to honor Demeter, the goddess of corn and grains. The Romans had a similar celebration in which they honored­ Ceres, the goddess of corn (the word "cereal" is derived from her name). The Roman celebration included music, parades, games, sports and a feast, much like modern Thanksgiving.


In fact, one of the most prominent Thanksgiving symbols, the cornucopia, actually dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The term (generally describing a horn-shaped basket filled with fruit, flowers and other goodies) comes from the Latin cornu copiae, literally "horn of plenty." In Greek mythology, the cornucopia is an enchanted severed goat's horn, created by Zeus to produce a never-ending supply of whatever the owner desires.

The ancient Chinese held a harvest festival called Chung Ch'ui to celebrate the harvest moon. Families would get together for a feast, which included round yellow cakes called "moon cakes."

In the Jewish culture, families also celebrate a harvest festival, Sukkot. This festival has been celebrated for 3,000 years by building a hut of branches called a Sukkot. Jewish families then eat their meals beneath the Sukkot under the night sky for eight days. The ancient Egyptians participated in a harvest festival in honor of Min, the god of vegetation and fertility. Parades, music and sports were a part of the festivities.

In the British Isles, the major Thanksgiving forerunner was a harvest festival called Lammas Day, named for the Old English words for "loaf" and "mass." On Lammas Day, everyone would come to church with a loaf of bread made from the first wheat harvest. The church would bless the bread, in thanks for that year's harvest.

Thanksgiving day is also related to the English Puritan's practice of setting apart individual days of thanksgiving. These highly religious occasions usually followed times of great difficulty: The Puritans would praise God in thanks for enduring a hardship. In practice, American Thanksgiving isn't a religious occasion, but it is centered around gratitude.

In the next section, we'll learn about the origins of Thanksgiving.


History of Thanksgiving

first, Thanksgiving
Pilgrims celebrate the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

­Modern Thanksgiving has its direct origins in American history. In 1609, a group of Puritans fleeing religious persecution in England moved to Holland. They ­lived in Holland for a number of years until a group of English investors — the Merchant Adventurers — financed a trip for more than 100 passengers to the New World.

­On Sept. 6, 1620, they set sail on a ship called the Mayflower, leaving from England and arriving in the New World after 65 days. They settled in a town called Plymouth in what is now Massachusetts. The Pilgrims' first winter was so harsh that fewer than 50 of the group survived the season.


On March 16, 1621, an Abnaki Indian named Samoset entered the Plymouth settlement. He welcomed the Pilgrims in English, and the next day returned with another American Indian named Squanto, who spoke English well. With Squanto's help, the Pilgrims were able to survive in the New World. He taught them how to get sap out of the maple trees, how to avoid plants that were poisonous and how to plant corn and other crops.

­The harvest was very successful, due in large part to help from the American Indians. The Pilgrims had enough food for the winter and had learned how to survive in the New World. Plymouth Colony's Governor, William Bradford, decided to throw a celebratory feast and invited the colony's American Indian neighbors to take part. The American Indians brought food as well, and the celebration lasted for three days.

Historians believe that this celebration took place sometime in the fall. And although there are very few clues to reconstruct the feast, some scholars believe that food items, like venison and fish, were the main sources of protein, rather than turkey. It's also thought that the food preparation would have been greatly influenced by American Indian traditions since the Puritans had been instructed by American Indians on how to cultivate and cook items [source: Bergland].

Many view the first Thanksgiving as an example of the possibility of great respect and cooperation between two different cultures. But others see it as a symbol of the colonists' eventual persecution of the American Indians. Sadly, the friendly spirit of the first Thanksgiving and the 50-year period of peace that followed is one exception in a long history of bloodshed between Native American tribes and European settlers.

In 1970, some American Indians began observing a Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day to remember the violence and discrimination suffered by their ancestors. The Day of Mourning is observed by gathering at the top of "Coles Hill," which overlooks Plymouth Rock.


Thanksgiving Day

Plimoth Plantation
'Servant Dorothy,' played by Kathleen Wall, bastes a goose while 'Mistress Mary Brewster,' played by Lisa Walbridge, plucks the feathers from a duck in preparation for the Thanksgiving feast at Plimoth Plantation Pam Berry/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

­It's uncl­ear whether the Pilgrims themselves called that first feast a thanksgiving celebration, but they were certainly celebrating the abundance of food and the peace with their American Indian neighbors.­

­It wasn't until several years later, after enduring a monthslong drought, that Thanksgiving was celebrated in earnest. In response to the hot, dry summer months, the governor called for a fast. Soon afterward, rain revived the shriveled crops, and the Puritans celebrated.


The custom of marking good fortune with a day of gratitude quickly caught on throughout New England. In the early days of the United States, the new nation's leaders began proclaiming country-wide thanksgiving celebrations. In the American Revolution, for example, the Continental Congress called for a day of thanksgiving to mark the U.S. victory at the Battle of Saratoga. Then in 1789, President George Washington called for a day of thanksgiving in recognition of the U.S. Constitution's ratification [source: Nelte].

In 1817, New York state officially adopted a yearly Thanksgiving day, and some other states followed suit. Most celebrated the day in November, and a few observed it in December. In the mid-1800s, a magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale mounted a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln did just that, proclaiming that Thanksgiving would be the last day in November. In this case, Lincoln was mainly out to boost the Union army's morale.

­After the Civil War, Congress made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Initially, many Southerners saw this as the Northerners forcing their particular traditions on the whole country. But eventually, the holiday caught on everywhere.

­In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up one week, to appease businesses that wanted a longer Christmas shopping season. Much of the nation balked at the change, and many kept on celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday, as before. Some opponents even called Roosevelt's new Thanksgiving day "Franksgiving" [source: Meeks]. In 1941, Roosevelt signed a bill to officially make Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November. This means Thanksgiving is the last Thursday of the month some years and the second to last in other years.


Thanksgiving Turkey

Obama, Thanksgiving turkey
President Barack Obama pardons his last Thanksgiving turkey in 2016. Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

­The m­ost significant symbols of Thanksgiving are the foods Americans eat for Thanksgiving dinner. On a broad level, these foods celebrate traditional agriculture life. Most of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes are fairly simple foods that are native to North America.

­Most Americans associate Thanksgiving with turkey. This connection goes back to the prevalence of wild turkey in the New World. At the time of the first Thanksgiving, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford commented on "the great store of wild turkeys" — even though it's thought that venison and fish were the center of the celebration [source: Bergland]. Turkey is such an important part of Thanksgiving that more than 90 percent of Americans eat it on Thanksgiving [source: Scripps Howard News Service].


After turkey, the most significant dish on the table is corn. This abundant crop was an important staple to the Pilgrims, and, with the help of the American Indians, was cultivated to help ensure that there would be enough food for the winter.

Cranberries were probably on the first Thanksgiving table. The American Indians taught the Pilgrims to make a cranberry sauce called "ibimi," which means "bitter berry." When the colonists saw the berry, they renamed it "crane-berry," because its flowers resembled the long-necked bird called the crane [source: U.S. Department of State].


Thanksgiving Traditions

Parade, Macy's
Parade participants attend the 90th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on Nov. 24, 2016, in New York City. John Lamparski/WireImage/Getty Images

Apart from food, the biggest Thanksgiving traditions are football and parades. In an­cient harvest festivals, people usually celebrated with games and sports, so you could argue the football tradition has very deep roots. The traditional American Thanksgiving football game was usually between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, but as football has become more popular, there are now more games on Thanksgiving day.

­The tradition of Thanksgiving parades goes back to the early 20th century, when people began to associate Thanksgiving with the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. In order to attract customers, stores like Macy's sponsored elaborate parades like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.


Some people choose to express their gratitude by giving back to the community. Volunteer activities, such as helping out at a soup kitchen or at a shelter, are popular ways to spend Thanksgiving Day.

Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has gifted a live Thanksgiving turkey to the White House, along with two butchered turkeys [source: National Turkey Federation]. It's not known exactly when United States presidents began pardoning the White House Thanksgiving turkey, but the tradition is thought to be connected to Abraham Lincoln sparing a turkey named "Jack" from becoming the main dish in a holiday meal. Today, the Annual Turkey Ceremony takes place in advance of Thanksgiving, and the public has the opportunity to name the spared turkey, who lives its remaining days at the Kidwell Farm, a petting zoo in Virginia. The first "official" turkey pardoning ceremony took place in 1989 during the presidency of George H. W. Bush.

Finally, because Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November and thus falls on a different date each year, the president of the United States issues a yearly proclamation to establish the date of the celebration. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln began the tradition, and every president since has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bergland, Renee. "The Surprising History of Thanksgiving." Simmons College.
  • Meeks, N. Brock. "Since Plymouth, Thanksgiving Day has seen its share of controversy." Nov. 23, 2005. MSNBC.
  • Nelte, Karen. "History of the Modern Thanksgiving." Aug. 9, 2001.
  • Raloff, Janet. "Food for Thought: Talking Turkey (with recipe)." Nov. 29, 2003. Science News Online.
  • United States Census Bureau. Nov. 23, 2006.
  • United States Department of State. "Celebrate! Holidays in the U.S."