Thanksgiving Day, also known as Turkey Day, has customs with deep roots in American history.

Most families have their own rituals for Thanksgiving Day, many of us like to cook a big turkey meal, watch the parade on TV and spend the afternoon watching football with the family. But do you know how these traditions got started? Scroll down to find out…

Wild turkeys in Hawaii

Wild turkeys in Hawaii

I’m sure you’ve heard the story: Pilgrims arrive at Plymouth Rock in 1621, nearly starve, are taught to farm by the locals, and after the first harvest, everyone has a gratitude-filled meal to celebrate.

According to Tia Ghose, senior writer at LifeScience, settlers may have celebrated the first Thanksgiving farther south, at least if Texans have their say. Residents of San Elizario, Texas, claim the first Thanksgiving feast was celebrated in 1598 by Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate. After he and 500 fellow travelers survived a treacherous crossing through the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico, the thirsty travelers gulped down water from the Rio Grande and devoured a Thanksgiving feast of fish and wild game to celebrate.

America’s first Thanksgiving feast may have even older roots still: Spanish admiral Pedro Menendes de Aviles is said to have celebrated the first Thanksgiving feast with 500 soldiers and hundreds of the local Timucuan Indians in 1565 in St. Augustine, Fla.

From turkey pardoning to strange meats for the feast, here are the origins of five of the holiday’s most iconic traditions:

Turkey Pardon

Every year, the president frees one lucky turkey while millions of its brethren are consigned to the dinner table. Though turkey farmers have been sending presidents the choicest birds since the 1800s, President John F. Kennedy was the first one on record to spare a turkey. In 1963, he sent back a turkey mailed by the National Turkey Federation, saying, “We’ll just let this one grow.”

President Richard Nixon sent turkeys to a Washington, D.C., petting farm but didn’t officially pardon them, according to the White House Blog. President George H.W. Bush gave the first official pardon to a turkey in 1989. The survivor lived out its days at a Virginia petting zoo called Frying Pan Park.

Official Holiday

While Thanksgiving festivals were informally celebrated throughout the 1600s, they didn’t become an annual event until the 1700s, when each state set aside a different day for the holiday. By 1775, George Washington, then commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, declared the first national celebration of Thanksgiving, and he issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1789. But the holiday didn’t get a fixed date until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln set aside the last Thursday in November for the day of thanks.

Macy’s Parade

After a day of gorging, many Americans sit down to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. This annual tradition didn’t get started until 1924, when Macy’s employees held a Christmas parade filled with knights, clowns and jugglers.

macys thanksgiving day parade

The 6 mile long parade attracted a crowd of 250,000 viewers. No wonder the department store decided to hold it every year. The first balloon, Felix the Cat, floated above the parade in 1927, Mickey Mouse didn’t make his appearance until 1934.

2016 – Thursday, Nov 24 at 9:00 a.m. in all time zones. Ring in your holiday with the 90th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, broadcast on NBC since 1948!

Football Holiday

Another family pastime is Thanksgiving football. It has its roots in the Great Depression. After the Portsmouth Spartans moved to Detroit in 1930, the team’s owner knew he had to do something to draw football fans to the new team.

In 1934, he arranged a match between the Spartans (renamed the Lions) and the world champions, the Chicago Bears. Though the Spartans lost, a Thanksgiving tradition was born: The game sold out two weeks in advance, and the event became such a hit that it was repeated the year after. This time, the Lions prevailed.

Strange Meats

The first settlers may have stuffed themselves with a range of meats at the dinner table, but the turducken is a fairly recent invention. A chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey, the turducken has taken its place in the canon of over-the-top, calorie-laden Thanksgiving dishes.

Learn how to make a Turducken

The dish first appeared in central Louisiana meat shops sometime between the late 1970s and early 1980s and was popularized by Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme. But the tradition of stuffing birds inside of other birds like Russian dolls may have even older roots: French foodie Grimod de la Reynière first described the rôti sans pareil (roast without equal) in L’Almanac des Gourmands between 1803 and 1812. The dish packs 17 birds inside one another, from a tiny warbler all the way up to a giant bird called a bustard.

Yikes! Well, now that you know a little bit more about this well loved American Holiday and its traditions, you can share your newly found knowledge around your family’s dinner table on Thanksgiving Day.

What is your favorite Thanksgiving tradition? Leave us a comment below.

2 thoughts on “5 Iconic Thanksgiving Day Traditions”
  1. Getting together with family is the highlight of my Thanksgiving day. It’s very difficult to find time for all of us to be together, so Thanksgiving is it!!! I love it. The little ones grow up fast, it is so true that they are crawling one day & going to college the next. I don’t want to miss a minute of it.

    1. I know how you feel Gisela, we will miss our family dearly this Christmas season. Thank goodness for Skype, it is so much easier to stay in contact over long distances these days.

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