The Origins of Thanksgiving Traditions

Nov 16, 2022 | Gatherings

The Origins of Thanksgiving Traditions

When the annual Thanksgiving holiday arrives, it is traditionally a time to gather in the cozy family home and enjoy a meal featuring turkey and all the trimmings.  So, how did Thanksgiving and many of its traditions get started? Here are the origins of Thanksgiving traditions.

Thanksgiving was declared a national event in the United States in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln. The purpose was to celebrate “a day of Thanksgiving and praise” to remember the nation’s blessings during the time of the raging Civil War.

The story associated with Pilgrims got started in the late 1800’s when immigrants were flooding into America. Cultural leaders at the time, using shaky historical evidence, told the story of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving in an effort to Americanize an increasingly diverse population. 

The Origins of Thanksgiving Traditions: the Turkey

Exactly how the turkey became the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal is a matter of debate.

Some credit Sarah Joseph Hale whose accounts of early New England celebrations emphasized a roast turkey.  Others claim the large size of the bird is its claim to fame. There were also “great turkey walks” where thousands of the birds were herded down country roads to urban markets prior to Thanksgiving.


Turkey Trots

The “great turkey walks” later became known as “turkey trots”.  In modern times, the races, ranging from  5K casual runs to half marathons, became a Thanksgiving morning tradition in many communities.  It’s a fun way to burn off calories in preparation for the big meal.


The Wishbone

After carving the turkey, the wishbone is taken out and set aside to dry.  Later, two people make a wish and break the wishbone. Tradition says the person who ends up with the bigger half will have their wish come true, followed by a year of good luck.


 Be Grateful and Give Thanks

This tradition involves going around the table and having each person share what they are especially thankful for.  Friendsgiving is a newer tradition focusing on friends coming together to share a meal and socialize before they head home to their families. 


The Origin of Black Friday

The day after Thanksgiving is when stores across the country have huge sales to attract throngs of shoppers.  Folks stand in line for hours early in the morning on Black Friday to snag the best deals. The term dates back to the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869.  Now, the term refers to the annual day retailers aim to cash in on profits from holiday sales. The day ‘kicks off’ the official holiday shopping season.


The Origin of Cyber Monday

The Monday after Thanksgiving is a popular time for online shopping.  The term “Cyber Monday” was coined in 2005 by the National Retail Federation.  The group announced 77 percent of online retailers had seen their sales substantially increase on Cyber Monday the previous year.  The tradition caught on and has continued.  In 2014, Cyber Monday became the biggest online shopping day in the country, cashing in on more than $2 billion in sales. 


Giving Back

Thanksgiving is a popular time for volunteers to give back to their communities.  Food drives are a popular tradition.  Non-perishable food is collected and given to those in need, so they can enjoy a big meal too. 


Entertainment Options

Many families also watch television. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a popular draw. Televised football games are also a common Thanksgiving tradition. The idea of playing football on the holiday dates back as early as 1876, shortly after the game was invented. 

Some families choose to play a game of football themselves to burn off their big dinner.


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