Where do Thanksgiving traditions come from?

November 25, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday in the United States, it is universally celebrated by all cultures and ethnic groups, and yet, when I travel outside of the United States I see that this very American holiday remains a mystery to many.  In the past, I have dedicated this annual entry to the history and meaning of Thanksgiving; today, I will talk about the traditions that bind all Americans on this last Thursday of November.

Why do millions of Americans throughout the continent eat turkey on this day? Why do they gather around the television set to watch a football game even if their team is not even playing? For what reason did pumpkin pie become the preferred dessert over the all-American apple pie? Do all Americans really go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving? I believe that the answers to these questions will make it easier to understand the big deal that Thanksgiving is for all Americans.

More Americans celebrate Thanksgiving than any other date on the Holiday Season.  This may seem difficult to understand in those countries where Christmas is the number one holiday celebration, but when you think about the people of the United States and its diversity, you soon realize that Thanksgiving perfectly matches the American cultural landscape.  Without getting into the controversy of the first Thanksgiving, and regardless of the version Americans decided to believe, the fact is that the original Thanksgiving involved very different people, from cultures and backgrounds as foreign to the others as you can possibly imagine; yet, they got together for a shared celebration and feasting. In all cultures eating together is a sign of unity. Christmas on the other hand is a religious celebration for part of the population who has certain beliefs that are not universal in American society.  The truth is that, although Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, it can be treated as a religious celebration by all who opt to do so, regardless of their religion, because Thanksgiving is about certain principles treasured by all faiths: gratitude, peace, sharing, giving thanks.

The universal appeal of Thanksgiving has to do with other very important elements of this celebration: family and lack of expectations. Because of its secular nature and the universally embraced values Thanksgiving is based on, it is the family oriented event of the year.  Americans travel on this weekend more than at any other time during the year, and they do not travel to go to college or to close a business deal. They travel to be with their loved ones. This is the day when a mobile society like ours comes together around the family table and share stories and laughter with their relatives.  Americans gather on Thanksgiving to be together, there are no other expectations. Unlike Christmas, there is no added pressure to spend beyond your means as there are no presents. People gift their company to each other. That is all.  The American culture is very informal and Thanksgiving is an informal event. People eat, come and go as they please, some watch football on TV, others catch up on their personal lives, and they all eat as much as they want. No apologies, no dinner schedule; just grab a plate and eat as much and as many times as you want, and when you eat, you are uniting with the rest of your fellow countrymen and women, because on this day, an American society that cherishes individuality and praises self-identity, a country where children do not wear school uniforms because it cuts on their individual identities, all Americans eat the same meal. This is how special Thanksgiving is for our country.  These are the reasons why tradition is paramount on this day of celebration.

Why do millions of Americans throughout the continent eat turkey on this day?

The side dishes vary from house to house depending on the family’s cultural heritage, the region of the country where they live, and their own family traditions. Some will have mashed potatoes, others will eat sweet potatoes, and in some parts of the country people will eat rice, pasta, beans, seafood, poi, dinner rolls or tortillas. This is the part of the meal where Americans assert their individuality and cultural identity, this is perhaps, the part of the meal that makes it possible for the American people to give up a little individuality, and for one day every year eat the same: turkey.

The history of the Thanksgiving turkey is shrouded in mystery. Letters from the early settlers, known as pilgrims, indicate that the first Thanksgiving menu that they shared with the Wampanoag people included lobster, oysters, beef and fowl. The only mention of a turkey comes from a writing by Edward Winslow who mentions a wild turkey hunting trip before the meal.  There is also a legend which states that England’s Queen Elizabeth I received this news during dinner, and she was so happy that she ordered another goose to be served. When the pilgrims heard of the Queen’s reaction, it inspired them to roast a turkey instead of a goose and that became the traditional meal. You see, wild turkeys are native to the United States so they were plenty available, In fact, this bird became such an important part of colonial identity, that after the birth of the United States, Benjamin Franklin argued that the turkey would be a more suitable national bird instead of the bald eagle.  Although Franklin did not succeed, every year since 1947 all U.S. presidents, from Truman to Obama, have issue a presidential pardon to a turkey who then retires to live the rest of its natural life in a farm.

Why do Americans gather around the television set to watch a football game on Thanksgiving?

This is another tradition that makes Thanksgiving the most American of all holidays. President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, and the Thanksgiving football tradition started only a few years later when Yale and Princeton first played on Thanksgiving in 1876. Soon after, the holiday became the traditional date for the Intercollegiate Football Association championship game. The Universities of Chicago and Michigan also developed a holiday rivalry, and by the late 1890s thousands of football games were taking place on Thanksgiving. Some of the original matchups still continue to this day. When professional football began in the twentieth century, it was just natural that a game be played on Thanksgiving, and in the 1920s there were many games on Turkey Day.  Today, the National Football League (NFL) holds two games on Thanksgiving: An early one that always features the Detroit Lions, played since 1934 when the Lions lost that first encounter to the Chicago Bears. Since 1966 there is another game later on the day that always includes the Dallas Cowboys. Football is a sport played in very few countries around the world (most countries refer to it as “American Football”) but it is the most popular sport in America, so it was a perfect fit to the Thanksgiving celebration. Nowadays people congregate around the home’s TV set to watch the games even if they do not root for any of the teams playing in Detroit or in Dallas. On this holiday, football is also used as a time reference: many Americans will announce their estimated time of arrival to a Thanksgiving dinner by saying that they “will get there by the first game’s halftime”. Many households keep the TV set on, showing the game, even if nobody is watching. Football “noise” is part of the traditional sounds of Thanksgiving.

How did pumpkin pie become the preferred Thanksgiving dessert over the all-American apple pie?

Pumpkin pie was not part of the menu at the first Thanksgiving dinner. The pilgrims most likely lacked the butter and flour needed to make the pie crust. We do not even know if they had an oven at their settlement. This however, does not mean that pumpkins were not present on that occasion. They probably ate baked and stewed pumpkin as it was a common part of their diet. With pumpkin as part of the Thanksgiving meal from the beginning, it was natural that the baked and stewed pumpkins gave their place at the table to the pumpkin pie when it first became popular later in the 17th century. Since it substituted the already established pumpkins as part of the traditional meal, instead of entering the menu as an addition, it never competed against the apple pie for a spot on the menu, and it became the delicious, tasty dessert we now eat, accompanied of some whipped cream, as part of the holiday tradition,

Do all Americans go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving?     

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Friday after Thanksgiving has been regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the U.S. and for that reason, most retailers open their doors very early, even during overnight hours to lure shoppers to come and take advantage of special sales. This day is now known as Black Friday, a name it first got in Philadelphia, and it is not an official national holiday in the United States, but some states like California and New Mexico among others observe the “Day after Thanksgiving” as a state-government holiday. Many schools do not open on Black Friday either.  For years, this was systematically the busiest shopping day of the year, but that has changed recently.  Now many more people do their shopping online and this has created what Ellen Davis coined as “Cyber Monday”. Since 2005 the Monday after Thanksgiving is when most people in America do their Christmas shopping online to allow for plenty of time for the presents to arrive to their recipients’ destination.  The truth is that not all Americans go shopping on Black Friday. Many Americans do not even observe Christmas, so giving presents is not even on their radar screen. It is a fact that many people will do their holiday shopping after Thanksgiving; a lot of them will visit the shopping malls on Black Friday, many will place their orders online on Cyber Monday, and many others will continue to shop right until Christmas. The important thing to keep in mind is that for many Americans, of many cultures and religions, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a holiday season when they will share their fortunes and happiness with family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and the needy, and that is after all the true meaning and the best tradition of Thanksgiving.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us some of your Thanksgiving traditions, and if you are outside the United States, please tell us your opinion about this very American holiday and share some of your family or country holiday traditions. I now want to thank all of you, my friends and colleagues, for following the blog. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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