Every fourth Thursday in November, people in the United States gather with family and loved ones around tables overflowing with food and drink to celebrate Thanksgiving. The holiday is a moment to give thanks and spend time with relatives and friends, and it is steeped in traditions.
Holiday décor — with images of autumn leaves, cornucopias and turkeys decorating seasonal napkins, plates and centerpieces — brightens homes and dining tables. Extra chairs are hauled up from the basement to accommodate extended family. A sense of celebration and joy hangs in the air, as relatives who might not see each other often reunite for the day. They eat a plentiful meal, watch football and parades, and then eat even more.
Thanksgiving is one of the nation's most widely celebrated secular holidays. Schools, banks, government offices and most businesses close for the day as people travel from near and far to be with their families. The following are six things that you should know about this beloved U.S. holiday.
It’s an Almost 400-Year-Old Tradition
The holiday's origins are thought to date back to 1621 near what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts. English colonists called Pilgrims are said to have invited Wampanoag Indians to share a meal to celebrate their first harvest, which they had planted with the help of the Indians. Though the story is commonly believed, some historians question this exact version of events. Today's food-filled customs and festivities weren't always the norm. The holiday didn't become an official national holiday until 1863, when U.S. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated every November.
People Eat Large Amounts of Turkey and Pie
As dinnertime approaches, families gather in cozy settings, often a dining room lit with candles and decorated in the season's colors of red, gold, orange and brown. Traditionally, the centerpiece of dinner is a roasted turkey. The turkey is usually served with sweet potatoes or yams and stuffing, which is a mixture of bread cubes, onions, celery and herbs that is stuffed into the turkey while it roasts. Foods that are common in Massachusetts and have historical significance, like cranberries, are also popular.
Thanks to rich cultural diversity in the U.S., families may also serve dishes that represent their ethnic backgrounds, such as couscous, pasta or curries. Beer and wine are often served, and some people even create holiday-themed cocktails.
Without a doubt, the highlight of Thanksgiving dinner is dessert. Fresh-baked pies are popular, and most meals end with slices of apple or pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream or ice cream.
Sometimes families choose to gather and eat at a restaurant. At national chains like Cracker Barrel, and in bigger cities around the United States, restaurants often create Thanksgiving Day menus. That way travelers and locals alike can partake in turkey and pie without the stress of cooking at home. Tip: This is a popular option for many families. You can make reservations directly with a restaurant or through Open Table.
People Also Do More Than Eat
On Thanksgiving morning, many people wake up early to run in local races (often for charity) called turkey trots. Other folks watch a Thanksgiving parade in person or on television. The largest and most iconic parade is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
Football on Thanksgiving is as much a part of the holiday as the meal. Many families spend hours watching NFL (National Football League), college and even high school football games in person or on television. Traditionally, NFL teams in Dallas, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan, host games.
The President Pardons a Turkey
Thanksgiving is a grim time for turkeys in the United States. One of the country's funnier traditions is having the president of the United States pardon one turkey. The lucky bird's life is spared and it spends its final years at Mount Vernon, Virginia, the former estate of the nation’s first president, George Washington.
People Shop 'Til They Drop
For many in the U.S., the day after Thanksgiving is celebrated as a different type of holiday, known as Black Friday. Stores across the nation have extended hours and offer deep discounts and special promotions. People join a holiday-shopping frenzy. Black Friday sales have become so notorious, many stores open for business much earlier than usual. Some businesses don't even wait until Friday for their sales to begin. They open their doors on Thanksgiving evening. Intrepid shoppers have been known to line up hours before shops open, eager to take advantage of steep discounts.
Thanksgiving Travel Can Be Tricky
Millions of people across the country travel to visit their families on Thanksgiving. The day before, Thanksgiving Day and the day after are among the most widely traveled days of the year in the United States. Travel delays on airplanes and trains are common, and traffic on roads is often heavy. Tip: While plane tickets on the days around Thanksgiving can be more expensive, flying on the holiday itself can be less expensive and less crowded.