How Thanksgiving Works

Thanksgiving Turkey

Obama, 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].

In the next section, we'll look at modern traditions like parades, pardons and football.