While the history of Thanksgiving may be filled with tales of revolt and massacre, the customs that have emerged over the last 400 years to celebrate the day bring joy to families across the United States. This American holiday evokes the traditions of pumpkin pie, parades, football games and turkey dinner. Every family adds their own unique touches to Thanksgiving, but some elements are staples.
Thanksgiving Day Parades
Major cities from New York to Houston begin the holiday season with a Thanksgiving Day parade. Featuring marching bands, dancers, floats and giant balloons, people young and old tune in every year to watch these colorful festivities take place.
The Macy’s Day Parade is the most widely watched and well known of the Thanksgiving parades. Over 3 million people line the streets of Manhattan to catch a glimpse of their favorite performers and balloons as they march down 34th Street. Ending at the Macy’s in Herald Square, the parade always concludes with the arrival of Santa Claus.
Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, Chicago, Seattle and Charlotte all throw large Thanksgiving Day parades. They all take place on Thanksgiving morning, which allows all of the spectators to make it home in time for football and turkey dinner.
Speaking of football – Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving if the TV isn’t tuned to the day’s big games. The first Thanksgiving Day football game took place in 1869 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From that point forward, it has become customary for athletes at every level of play to compete in football games on Thanksgiving Thursday.
The weekend after Thanksgiving marks the end of the regular college football season. Certain universities, including the University of Michigan, Princeton University, Yale University, Alabama State University, have made it a tradition to play on Thanksgiving Day. The Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend are filled with bowl games and prominent rivalry games.
In the National Football League, the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions have been playing home games on Thanksgiving for decades. In 2006, the NFL added a third, night game to the Thanksgiving Day lineup.
Groups of friends across the country have organized Turkey Bowls. These informal football games are usually played on Thanksgiving Day and feature (mostly) friendly competition between teams. Oftentimes, these games become yearly traditions, with trophies and other bragging rights being bestowed upon the winners.
Why turkey, you ask? Good question! There are quite a few theories out there about how turkey became the protein of choice to eat on Thanksgiving. Most historians agree that turkey was probably not on the menu for the first dinner between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. Turns out we have writer Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for introducing turkey to our Thanksgiving plate.
Hale, author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, was a huge fan of the holiday and pushed for it to become a national holiday. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln eventually agreed. In her novel Northwood, Hale devoted an entire chapter to the day, intricately describing the delicious turkey and pumpkin pie recipes she prepared for her guests. These new traditions spread to the masses after the recipes were shared in a popular magazine. The rest is history!
Today, nearly 90% of Americans serve turkey at Thanksgiving dinner. There are many differing opinions about the ‘right’ way to cook your Thanksgiving turkey. Some people swear by the traditional roasting method. Others argue about whether or not to stuff the bird or prepare the stuffing separately. Frying has become a popular way to cook a turkey of late. Regardless of how you choose to do it, everyone can agree that there are not many things better than a plate full of Thanksgiving deliciousness.
Breaking the Wishbone
This may be the oldest of all the traditions performed on Thanksgiving. The custom of snapping the wishbone (found in the turkey’s chest) dates back to the ancient Italian civilization of the Etruscans. Birds were believed to be oracles, capable of revealing prophecies of the future. The Etruscans would perform a ritual during which a chicken was presented as an offering. Once killed, its bones would be left to dry out and then distributed to the townspeople.
The wishbone was the most desired bone in the bird. It was believed that whoever broke the wishbone would be granted whatever it was they yearned for. Today, the wishbone remains the favorite part of the turkey in many families. Siblings fight for the chance to snap the wishbone, and the ‘winner’ takes pride in his or her accomplishment, rubbing it in to the ‘loser’ for the rest of the day.
Pardoning a Turkey
The history of turkey pardons is somewhat convoluted. There is written record that Abraham Lincoln granted clemency to a Christmas turkey that his son Tad had become attached to. Other sources reference Harry Truman as the first president to pardon a turkey. While there is evidence that Truman received a turkey as a gift, it is not clear whether or not he spared the bird.
The practice of giving a turkey to the President of the United States as a gift dates back to the 1870’s. Horace Vose, a well-known poultry farmer from Rhode Island, was the unofficial turkey supplier to the White House from 1873-1913. Vose passed away in 1913, and from that point on, turkey farmers have competed for the right to provide the First Family with their Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner fare.
It appears that John F. Kennedy was the first president to officially pardon the Thanksgiving turkey that was gifted to him. While no one knows exactly why he did it, historians have surmised that Presidnet Kennedy was uncomfortable meeting face to face with his future dinner. Once the precedent was set by Kennedy, all presidents followed suit. The tradition has since become a media event, featuring the president posing on the White House lawn with the lucky turkey.
No Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without the pièce de résistance, pumpkin pie. There is absolutely no evidence that this holiday staple was served at the first Thanksgiving dinner. While the chances are slim to none that the pilgrims had the flour or butter necessary to make a proper pie crust, it is likely that pumpkin appeared on the table in some form.
The delicious autumn dessert became a popular dish in the 17th century. In 1705, a Connecticut town famously postponed Thanksgiving for a week because there wasn’t enough molasses available to make pumpkin pie. The dessert was later mentioned in Sarah Josepha Hale’s 1827 novel, Northwood, which also featured her turkey recipe. Now a fixture at all Thanksgiving tables, pumpkin pie is the perfect end to a day filled with tradition and love.