Thanksgiving Day a Time for Reflection, Gratitude

Thanksgiving in the United States is possibly the premier U.S. family celebration, typically celebrated at home and marked with a substantial feast. As the anchor of what is for many a four-day holiday weekend, Thanksgiving provides an occasion for family reunions, marks the beginning of the “holiday season” that continues through Christmas and New Year’s Day and, as its name suggests, affords Americans a shared opportunity to express their gratitude for plentiful food and general abundance.

Many cultures traditionally have marked a plentiful harvest with a celebration of thanks. Long before the first English settlers reached North America, Western Europeans observed “Harvest Home” festivals and the British an August 1 Lammas (“Loaf Mass”) Day, celebrating the wheat harvest. The American Thanksgiving holiday began in 1621 with the first successful Pilgrim harvest, one that truly provided an occasion to give thanks.

The Pilgrims had arrived in 1620, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to separate themselves from the official Church of England and practice freely their form of Puritanism. Arriving at Plymouth Colony—part of today’s Massachusetts—too late to grow many crops, and lacking fresh food, the Pilgrims suffered terribly during the winter of 1620–1621. Half the colony died from disease. The following spring, local Wampanoag Indians taught the colonists how to grow corn (maize) and other local crops unfamiliar to the Pilgrims, and also helped the newcomers master hunting and fishing.

Because they harvested bountiful crops of corn, barley, beans and pumpkins, the colonists had much to be thankful for in the fall of 1621. English Puritans had traditionally designated special days of thanksgiving to express gratitude for God’s blessings. In the autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony held their first Thanksgiving. They invited their Wampanoag benefactors who arrived with deer to roast with the turkeys and other wild game offered by the colonists. The colonists had learned how to cook cranberries and different kinds of corn and squash dishes from the Indians.

Many of the original colonists continued to celebrate days of thanksgiving for a bountiful autumn harvest. President George Washington proclaimed a national Thanksgiving in 1789, to celebrate the ratification of the United States Constitution. Gradually, a number of states began to celebrate an annual Thanksgiving. In 1863,during the long and bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November an annual national Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a time for tradition and sharing. Even if they live far away, family members often gather for family reunions. As a result, Thanksgiving marks the busiest domestic air travel period of the year. Many Americans enjoy a local Thanksgiving parade, or the annual Macy’s department store parade, televised live from New York City. Others watch televised American football, while all give thanks together for their food, shelter and other good things. Many volunteer their time to help civic groups, churches, and charitable organizations offer traditional meals to those in need.

On a more secular note, the day after Thanksgiving came in the 20th century to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Thanksgiving was moved to the fourth Thursday in November, which in some years lengthened that shopping period.


Turkey, corn (maize), pie, and cranberry sauce are symbols that represent the first Thanksgiving. These symbols often are depicted on holiday decorations and greeting cards. Corn in particular is held to represent the survival of the Pilgrim colonies. Used as a table or door decoration, corn or maize represents the harvest and the fall season.

Turkey: Icon of American Thanksgiving

Although there is no evidence that turkey was on the menu for the earliest Thanksgiving dinners, most Americans today couldn’t imagine a Thanksgiving Day dinner without one.
According to the National Turkey Federation, an advocate for turkey growers in the United States, nearly 88 percent of Americans ate turkey at their Thanksgiving Day dinner in 2011 — approximately 334 million kilograms worth.

Once plentiful and a true native of North America, the wild turkey, statesman Benjamin Franklin argued, should have been the official bird of the United States — not the bald eagle. As for pure display of regal plumage, the wild male “Tom” turkey (as shown here) can hold its own against any bird.

Presenting live turkeys to the president of the United States for Thanksgiving has been an annual ritual since 1947. Those birds, with great public fanfare, are “pardoned” by the president and generally sent off to Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s estate, to happily live out their days.

Less well publicized are the dressed turkeys that federation growers present to the president. Those are donated to organizations that help feed the needy.

Time for Pie

With all the savory food adorning the American Thanksgiving table, it can be difficult for some to save room for dessert, but for many it is the highlight of the meal — and it is usually pie.

Pie has a storied history and is thought to have originated in Egypt around 9500 BCE. In many cultures, the grain or pastry coating was used for cooking meat and vegetables to seal in the juices and help preserve the food. Before long, the technique was also used for preserving fruits, such as apples and cherries.
Native Americans introduced European settlers to new fruits and berries, such as pumpkins and blueberries, for their pie recipes, and African Americans are believed to have created sweet potato pie.

In Colonial America, pie was served at nearly every meal, and community gatherings such as county fairs and picnics often featured pie baking contests. Along with family recipes handed down through several generations, American pies are also continually being adapted to changing conditions and ingredients. Since the advent of refrigeration in the 1890s, many Americans have eaten their pie à la mode — that is, with a scoop of ice cream.

Cranberry sauce

Sweet-sour cranberry sauce, or cranberry jelly, was on the first Thanksgiving table and is still served today. The cranberry is a small, sour berry. It grows in bogs, or muddy areas, in Massachusetts and other New England states. The Indians used the fruit to treat infections and the juice to dye their rugs and blankets. They taught the colonists how to cook the berries with sweetener and water to make a sauce. The Indians called it “ibimi,” which means “bitter berry.” The Pilgrims preferred “crane-berry” because the flowers of the berry bent the stalk over, reminding them of the long-necked crane. The berries are still grown in New England.

A Day of Pageantry and Parade

Since its debut in 1924, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City has become synonymous with Thanksgiving and marks an unofficial start to the holiday season. Each year, more than 3.5 million people gather along the 4-kilometer route to cheer floats, celebrities, giant helium balloons and some of the country’s best marching bands. The festivities are carried live on national television, attracting approximately 50 million viewers.

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