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Giving Thanks: How Thanksgiving Traditions Began

Kristine has a B.A. in Journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Michigan.

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American tradition that marks the beginning of the holiday season in the United States. Although Canada, Grenada, Liberia, and Saint Lucia have all adopted their own versions of the holiday, Thanksgiving in the U.S. is marked by some unique and time-honored traditions.

Pilgrims and Native Americans

Nearly all of what we know about the very first Thanksgiving comes from a single document. A letter written in December 1621 by Edward Winslow included a description of a celebratory feast on Plymouth Plantation, according to the History.com article on the First Thanksgiving.

Winslow was one of about 100 colonists who sailed from England aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and founded the colony in Massachusetts. William Bradford, who was Plymouth’s governor in 1621, also wrote briefly of the celebration more than 20 years after it took place in his history of the colony, Of Plymouth Plantation.

According to Bradford’s writing, the feast was a celebration of the harvest and took place over three days sometime between late September and mid-November of 1621. The feast included both colonists and members of the Wampanoag tribe who taught the Pilgrims how to hunt and cultivate the unfamiliar land.

The celebration was attended by the Wampanoag king Massasoit along with about 90 of his braves, according to Bradford’s account. Fifty surviving colonists—22 men, four women, and 25 children and teenagers—were also present. The remaining colonists, including 78 percent of the women, had died during the first winter, according to History.com.

There is no documentation to suggest that the colonists repeated the celebration. However, the tradition of giving thanks eventually merged with harvest celebrations and became a fall tradition in New England by the late 1600s, according to History.com

Turkey

Although historians agree that evidence exists of a shared meal between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, there is no proof that turkey was actually part of the meal. According to the Brittanica.com article “Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?” the Wampanoag provided deer meat for the feast while the settlers provided “fowl.” Turkeys were certainly native to the region, but most likely the Pilgrims served ducks or geese.

According to History.com, the group probably also ate fish and shellfish, which were abundant in the area. The feast also likely included fruits and vegetables, such as cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce, parsnips, and pumpkins.

During the Colonial era, communities in New England would typically hold an unofficial Thanksgiving celebration to commemorate the original feast. Because turkeys were so plentiful, the bird became a staple at these celebrations by the 19th century. Turkeys were generally raised on farms strictly for meat, unlike cows or hens which served other purposes. A single turkey was often enough to feed a large family, according to Brittanica.com.

By the time President Franklin Roosevelt signed the resolution establishing the Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of November in 1941, the roasted turkey had established itself as an integral part of the holiday. In Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford referred to “great store of wild Turkies (sic)” at Plymouth during the fall of 1621. The link between Pilgrims, turkeys, and Thanksgiving was established, and the turkey was entrenched as a Thanksgiving tradition.

Pumpkin Pie

It’s hard for most of us to imagine a Thanksgiving dinner that is not topped off with a pumpkin pie. Pumpkins, however, were not native to North America. According to the History.com article “The History of Pumpkin Pie,” pumpkins were first cultivated in Central America around 5,500 B.C. and were brought to Europe by early explorers of the Americas.

By the mid-1500s, “pumpions”—named after the French pompon because of their round shape—were regularly grown in England and were often used in stuffed pastries. It is likely that some were brought with the pilgrims from England and used for seed. It is also possible that the Wampanoag and other natives had already been introduced to pumpkins from earlier settlers in the New World.

According to History.com, early pies with “pumpkin,” as the squash came to be known in the colonies, would feature layers of pumpkins and apples with spices such as rosemary, sweet marjoram, and thyme. Sometimes a crust was not even necessary. An early New England recipe called for filling a hollowed-out pumpkin with sweetened spiced milk and cooking it directly over a fire.

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As more communities began recognizing Thanksgiving throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, pumpkin pie became an important part of the celebration. In 1929, Libby’s—a meat-canning company based in Chicago—introduced canned pumpkins to the American public. With the work of roasting and straining the squash eliminated, the popularity of pumpkin pie exploded, and the dessert was relegated to a Thanksgiving fixture.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

For many of us, the Thanksgiving celebration begins early in the day by viewing Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This tradition did not start out as a Thanksgiving celebration, however. The very first parade in 1924 was hailed as a Christmas Parade to entice shoppers to purchase holiday gifts.

According to History.com’s “The First Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” the parade was meant to highlight Macy’s claim as the “World’s Largest Store” with its 1 million square feet of retail space. The parade covered six miles from Harlem to the store’s location in Herald Square. Macy’s employees dressed as clowns, knights, and cowboys staffed the parade, as well as monkeys, elephants, bears, and camels from the Central Park Zoo. Santa Claus closed out the parade on a float that featured a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

According to the website NYCTourist.com’s article, “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – The History,” over 250,000 spectators attended the first parade. It was such a hit with onlookers that Macy’s decided to stage it again the following year.

The caged animals in the parade, however, had scared children and made adults wary. Macy’s then decided to replace the animals with large, helium-filled character balloons. One of the earliest was Felix the Cat, who made his debut in 1927, according to History.com.

Macy’s officially changed the name to the Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927. The parade route was also shortened from six miles to 2.5. For many years the parade ran down Broadway, but the route was changed to 7th Avenue in 2009 to avoid pedestrian plazas that had been constructed, according to the article “A Brief History of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” on Triviagenius.com.

Floats were always part of the parade and were originally drawn by horses. They came to prominence in the 1960s when Macy’s began creating larger and more elaborate floats in a New Jersey studio, which were designed to collapse in order to fit through the Holland Tunnel, according to Triviagenius.com.

It has been broadcast since 1932, first on radio and then on television beginning in 1946. NBC has broadcast the parade since 1947. It has been held every year with the exception of a three-year span from 1942-1944 due to WWII, according to Triviagenius.com.

Today, 50 million viewers and approximately 3.5 million spectators begin their celebrations with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Sources:

Barksdale, Nate (2014, November 21). “The History of Pumpkin Pie.” https://www.history.com/news/the-history-of-pumpkin-pie. History.com

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. Dover Publications, 2006.

Cunningham, John M. “Why Do We Eat Turkey?” https://www.britannica.com/story/why-do-we-eat-turkey-on-thanksgiving. Brittanica.com.

Klein, Christopher (2014, November 26). “The First Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.” https://www.history.com/news/the-first-macys-thanksgiving-day-parade. History.com

NYC Tourist “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – The History.” https://www.nyctourist.com/macys_history1.htm. NYCTourist.com

Pruitt, Sarah (2020, November 16). “Colonists at the First Thanksgiving Were Mostly Men Because Women Had Perished.” https://www.history.com/news/first-thanksgiving-colonists-native-americans-men. History.com

Trivia Genius (2020, November 24). “A Brief History of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.” https://www.triviagenius.com/a-brief-history-of-the-macys-thanksgiving-day-parade/X7w7MfdamAAG2Bg6. Triviagenius.com

Floats and balloons make their way through the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Floats and balloons make their way through the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

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