Thanksgiving, popularly known as ‘Turkey Day’ is a national holiday celebrated in Canada and the United States.
It was originally celebrated as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year.
Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October in Canada and on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States.
Several other places around the world observe similar celebrations.
Although Thanksgiving has historical roots in religious and cultural traditions, it has long been celebrated in a secular manner as well.
History of Thanksgiving
Although the American concept of Thanksgiving developed in the colonies of New England, its roots can be traced back to the other side of the Atlantic.
Historians have noted that Native Americans had a rich tradition of commemorating the fall harvest with feasting and merrymaking long before Europeans set foot on their shores.
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.
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.
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.
Queenlier was so thrilled with the news she ordered another goose be served.
Some claim early US settler’s 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.
Classic Thanksgiving dishes
- Turkey: and/or ham, goose and duck or turduken (a spatchcocked combo of three whole birds!)
- Stuffing (also known as dressing): a mix of bread cubes, chopped celery, carrots, onions and sage stuffed inside the turkey for roasting.
- Chestnuts, chopped bacon or sausage, and raisins or apples are also sometimes included in the stuffing.
- Mashed potatoes with gravy
- Sweet potatoes: often served as candied sweet potatoes, sometimes topped with marshmallows
- Butternut squash
- Green beans
- Cranberry sauce
- Plain bread rolls, savory biscuits or corn bread (popular in the southern US states and some parts of New England)
- Pies: pumpkin pies are most common, but pecan, apple, sweet potato and mincemeat pies are also quite popular.
Watching football on Thanksgiving might seem like a modern tradition, but Americans have been taking to the gridiron on Turkey Day since the 19th century.
President Abraham Lincoln first declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, and the earliest Thanksgiving Day football games began only a few years later.
Yale and Princeton first played on Thanksgiving in 1876, during a time when football was still evolving from a rugby hybrid into the sport we know today, and the holiday later became the traditional date for the Intercollegiate Football Association championship game.
The Universities of Michigan and Chicago also built a famous holiday rivalry, and by the late 1890s thousands of football games were taking place each Thanksgiving.
Some of these traditional match-ups still continue to this day.
For example, the Massachusetts high schools Boston Latin and the English High School of Boston have faced off on Turkey Day every year since 1887.