Roast dinner, American football and giant balloons – what is Thanksgiving Day really all about?
When is Thanksgiving Day 2015?
On the fourth Thursday in November. This year the day falls on November 26th.
Thanksgiving Day traditionally kicks off the ‘holiday season’ in the United States. The day was set in stone by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 and approved by Congress in 1941. FDR changed it from Abraham Lincoln’s designation as the last Thursday in November.
While Britons think of it as a warm-up for the Yuletide period, many Americans think it of it as just as important as Christmas.
In fact, more people in the US celebrate Thanksgiving than do Christmas. Thanksgiving Day is secular holiday in a country that officially separates church and state so this probably makes sense.
What is the history of Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving Day can be traced back to the 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation, where the religious refugees from England known popularly as the Pilgrims invited the local Native Americans to a harvest feast after a particularly successful growing season.
The previous year’s harvests had failed and in the winter of 1620 half of the pilgrims had starved to death.
The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899).
Luckily for the rest, members of the local Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, beans and squash (the Three Sisters); catch fish, and collect seafood.
There are only two contemporary accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving, but it’s clear that Turkey was not on the menu. The three-day feast included goose, lobster, cod and deer.
So why do Americans eat Turkey on Thanksgiving Day?
Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote a letter about that now-famous meal in 1621 which mentioned a turkey hunt before the dinner.
Another theory says the choice of turkey was inspired by Queen Elizabeth I who was eating dinner when she heard that Spanish ships had sunk on their way to attack England.
Queenie was so thrilled with the news she ordered another goose be served. Some claim early US settlers roasted turkeys as they were inspired by her actions.
Others say that as wild turkeys are native to North America, they were a natural choice for early settlers.
Who set the date of Thanksgiving Day?
‘The National Thanksgiving Proclamation’ was the first formal proclamation of Thanksgiving in America. The first President of the United States George Washington made this proclamation on October 3, 1789.
Then in 1846, author Sarah Josepha Hale waged a one-woman campaign for Thanksgiving to be recognised as a truly national holiday.
In the US the day had previously been celebrated only in New England and was largely unknown in the American South. All the other states scheduled their own Thanksgiving holidays at different times, some as early as October and others as late as January.
Hale’s advocacy for the national holiday lasted 17 years and four presidencies before the letter she wrote to Lincoln was successful. In 1863 at the height of the Civil War he supported legislation which established a national holiday of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November.
Lincoln perhaps wanted the date to tie in with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which occurred on November 21, 1620. Although we now use the Gregorian calendar. In 1621 the date would have been November 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar.
So Hale finally got her wish. She is perhaps now better known, though, for writing the nursery rhyme ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.
In 1939, President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week to try and give a boost to retailers before Christmas during the Great Depression.
Several states followed FDR’s lead but 16 states refused move the holiday shift, leaving the country with rival Thanksgivings. FDR changed his mind after coming under pressure from Congress and in 1941, the a resolution was passeed returning the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November.
Atlantic City mayor Thomas D. Taggart later described the Thanksgiving holiday from 1939–1941 as “Franksgiving”.
There are still two Thanksgivings
Canadians mark Turkey Day, too, in fact it was the first country to do so. Canada celebrates a separate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October.
It was first celebrated by the arctic explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578 – more than 40 years before the Pilgrim fathers arrived in the New World.
Like soccer on Boxing Day in the UK, football (the American version) plays a major role in Thanksgiving.
The University of Detroit Stadium hosted the first Thanksgiving Day football game in 1934, pitting the Detroit Lions against the Chicago Bears.
The game was the brainchild of G.A. Richards, the first owner of the Detroit Lions. He was keen to promote the new franchise in a baseball-mad city, so he approached NBC to get them to broadcast the game across their national radio network. They agreed and the game became the first ever network broadcast event.
The game was such a hit it became a tradition in the US and football is now an integral part of the day.
The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade
Another Thanksgiving tradition is the Macy’s parade in New York City – an annual pageant of floats, cheerleaders, marching bands and gigantic balloons.
The parade dates back to the 1920s when many of the immigrant workers at Macy’s department store were keen to celebrate the American holiday with the sort of festival their parents had thrown in Europe.
It originally started from 145th Street in Harlem and ended at Herald Square, making a 6-mile (9.7 km) route.
The newest route was introduced with the 2012 parade. This change eliminated Times Square and rerouted the parade down Sixth Avenue, a move that was protested by the Times Square BID, Broadway theatre owners and other groups.
New York City officials preview the parade route and try to move as many potential obstacles out of the way, including traffic signals.
Since this group of birds were thought to come from Turkey, the North American bird was dubbed ‘turkey fowl’.
This later became shortened to ‘turkey’ and entered the vernacular. The English navigator William Strickland, who introduced the turkey into England in 1550, was granted a coat of arms (left) which included a “turkey-cock in his pride proper”.
The official record of his crest in the archives of the College of Arms is said to be the oldest surviving European drawing of a turkey.
(In Portuguese the translation of turkey is ‘peru’. The exotic birds taken back to 16th century Portugal had come from there, you see.)
The Presidential reprieve
Eating turkey is actually more associated with Thanksgiving than it is Christmas in the States with over 50 million turkeys served up every year in the US.
Every year, though, the President ‘pardons’ at least one turkey.
The public presentation of two prize turkeys to the commander-in-chief in the lead-up to Thanksgiving had been a time-honoured photo op since the 1940s.
But on Nov 17, 1989 – 200 years after George Washington’s proclamation (see above) – President George H.W. Bush introduced a new tradition of his own and pardoned a 50-pound turkey in the White House Rose Garden.
“Let me assure you,” Bush said to the 30 schoolchildren present. “This fine turkey will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”
The presidential turkey pardon has remained an annual Thanksgiving ritual ever since.
Trains, planes and automobiles: some stats
The 12-day Thanksgiving period between from Nov 20 to Dec 1 will likely see over 25 million travelling to destinations worldwide according to trade organisation Airlines for America (A4A).
The projected number of 25.3 million is three per cent higher than the estimated 24.5 million passengers who made the journey in 2014.
That equates to approximately 65,000 people per day on top of average passengers for a total of 2.7 million people per day.
The title of this section of course refers to the best film ever on the subject.
Steve Martin and John Candy in their pomp
Can I celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK?
According the 2011 census there were 177,185 Americans living in England and Wales so it’s becoming increasingly fashionable for restaurants and pop-ups to host Thanksgiving meals.
Also a lot Yanks will be coming to the UK on vacation so they will need to be fed. Here is our round-up of the 13 best places to go enjoy a Thanksgiving feast in the UK.
Does Britain have an equivalent?
Yes, it’s called Harvest Day, although it’s a lot less of a big deal. While we usually take a few non-perishables down to our local church and enter our autumn vegetables in competitions, Thanksgiving in North America is a much more plentiful and extravagent affair.
Does the UK care about Thanksgiving?
Yes, sort of in a commercial sense, although we maybe don’t realise it. Black Friday first arrived in the UK five years ago when Amazon thought it would try its luck bringing the American shopping sensation to a new market.
In 2013, Asda, which is owned by American retail giant Walmart, participated in UK’s version of Black Friday, and last year most major UK retailers including John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Argos and even British Airways jumped on board.
And with that, any remaining English decorum flew out the window. Shoppers trampled over each other in their rush to enter stores and police were called to break up fights as consumers grappled over discounted televisions and behaved “like animals”.
This year, police chiefs have urged stores to cancel Black Friday altogether after Asda decided to become the first retailer in the UK to abandon event.
Sweet potato and marshmallow pie
“We always celebrate Thanksgiving in our house,” says Allegra McEvedy, the food writer and co-founder of the Leon restaurant group. “My mother-in-law is American and insists on turkey every year. The pie below sounds hilarious but it’s crazily addictive!”
2 large sweet potatoes (about 1kg)
1 tbsp maple syrup
25g butter, plus extra for greasing
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 180C/ 350F/gas 4. Roughly prick the sweet potatoes all over and bake until squidgy – anything from 1 to 1½ hours, depending on their size. Remove but leave the oven on. When they’re cool enough to handle, peel, then whizz the flesh in a food processor with the maple syrup, butter, spices and seasoning. Put into a buttered dish, making sure it doesn’t come more than two-thirds of the way up.
Spread the pecans on a baking tray. Put in the oven above the sweet potato and, after 15 minutes, take them both out. Chop the nuts and scatter on top of the sweet potato. Cover with marshmallows, loosely foil the dish and bake for seven to 10 minutes until the marshmallows have melted. Take off the foil and cook for a further five minutes, until the top is golden.