History of Thanksgiving Traditions


When the fourth Thursday in November rolls around everyone in the United States is eagerly awaiting a tradition-filled day full of turkey, football and lots of family and friend time. Thanksgiving seems to be vastly different because unlike some holidays, such as New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July and Halloween, when people traditionally go out somewhere to celebrate, Thanksgiving is most commonly celebrated at home, with family and friends. This is one of the most universally loved things about Thanksgiving, when family and friends participate in long-held and deeply meaningful traditions together. You may believe that Thanksgiving is uniquely American but it may be interesting to note that seven other nations also celebrate an official Thanksgiving Day. These nations are Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Korea, Liberia, and Switzerland.

shutterstock_1981097According to some historians, the Pilgrims never observed an annual Thanksgiving feast in autumn. It is recorded that in the year 1621, they did celebrate a feast near Plymouth, Massachusetts. This feast was held following their first harvest. But the feast that most people refer to as the first Thanksgiving was never repeated. It may be ironic to note that most devoutly religious pilgrims observed a day of thanksgiving with prayer and fasting, not feasting. Even though this harvest feast was never actually called Thanksgiving by the pilgrims of 1621, it has become the model for the traditional Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States. The timing of Thanksgiving Day itself has evolved over the centuries. Some of the interesting highlights of Thanksgiving are as follows:

•1541 – Spanish explorer, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, led a thanksgiving Communion celebration at the Palo Duro Canyon, West Texas.

•1565 – Pedro Menendez de Aviles and 800 settlers gathered for a meal with the Timucuan Indians in the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, Florida.

•1621 – Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrated a harvest feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

•1630 – Settlers observed the first Thanksgiving of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on July 8, 1630 in New England.

•1777 – George Washington and his army stopped in blistering weather on the way to Valley Forge in an open field to observe the first Thanksgiving of the new United States of America.

•1789 – President Washington declared November 26, 1789, as a national day of “thanksgiving and prayer.”

•1800s – The annual presidential thanksgiving proclamations abruptly ended for 45 years in the early 1800s.

•1863 – President Abraham Lincoln resumed the tradition of Thanksgiving proclamations in 1863. Since this date, Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States.

•1941 – President Roosevelt chose to establish the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.


Another interesting tradition about Thanksgiving is the eating of turkey. It is assumed that turkey was a part of many of the early Thanksgiving celebrations due to the ease of procuring turkey in the New World. Surveys show that 95% of Americans celebrating Thanksgiving eat turkey as part of their menu. Another tradition that is associated with the Thanksgiving turkey, is “making a wish” with the wishbone. The person who happens to “get the wishbone” in their slice of turkey, chooses another family member to join them in making a wish, as they each hold one piece of the breastbone. They make a wish and then break the bone. The tradition says, whoever ends up holding the larger piece of bone, will have their wish come true. This “lucky break” tradition dates all the way back to 322 B.C. with the Etruscans who used whatever fowl they were eating. Another interesting turkey tradition is that since 1947, the President of the United States has been presented with three turkeys by the National Turkey Federation. One live turkey is pardoned and gets to live the rest of its life on a quiet farm; while sadly the other two are dressed for the Thanksgiving meal.

One of the most popular Thanksgiving traditions is watching football. Football is an important part of many Thanksgiving Day celebrations in the United States. With the huge number of games being played on Thanksgiving weekend, eager football watchers should be able to find a team to root for. Some interesting Thanksgiving Day football traditions include:

•The Detroit Lions of the American National Football League have hosted a game every Thanksgiving Day since 1934 (except 1939-1944, during World War II).

•The Dallas Cowboys have hosted a game every Thanksgiving Day since 1966 (except 1975 and 1977).