Thanksgiving Day is a federal holiday. Thanksgiving is one of the most family-oriented holidays on the calendar, and it is easily the most “relaxed” of them since it is generally spent entirely at home with family and friends.
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Because Thanksgiving is a federal holiday, it is observed by all levels of government, schools, public offices and most businesses. Families gather together for a turkey dinner and assorted traditional side dishes. Although many people also have Friday off, retail stores are open and it is one of the busiest shopping days of the entire year.
Some of the main traditions of the season include:
- Providing free Thanksgiving dinners for the needy, holding food drives, and giving charitable contributions in general. The Salvation Army is especially famous for enlisting volunteers to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the poor.
- Attending church services where congregants give thanks to God for the year’s blessings. These are typically held the weekend before, the day of, or the weekend after Thanksgiving Day. The saying of grace over Thanksgiving dinner at home is also a highly traditional moment of the holiday.
- Feasting on large Thanksgiving dinners and on leftovers for the week to come. Turkey is the centerpiece of the meal, and it is usually baked or roasted. Some, however, now opt to smoke or deep-fat-fry instead. In-bird stuffing, homemade mashed potatoes with turkey gravy, corn on the cob, butternut squash, candied yams, green been casserole, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie are some of the most traditionally eaten foods. On Thanksgiving Day of 2014, Americans spent $2.9 billion, ate 51 million turkeys, and ate more food than on any other day of the year.
Some Thanksgiving weekend events you should be aware of and may wish to take part in include:
- Watching, on television, as the U.S. President “pardons” a turkey provided by the National Turkey Federation. This tradition took hold after Ronald Reagan issued an official presidential pardon to a turkey in 1987 and sent it to a petting zoo instead.
- Watch professional and college football games on TV. The NFL has been playing “turkey bowls” for as long as it has existed, and college football games are very common on the Friday and Saturday just after Thanksgiving.
- Watch or attend a Thanksgiving parade. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York is the most famous. It has many floats, giant balloons, and a Macy’s Santa Claus to signal the Christmas shopping season has begun. America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit is also very large and famous, and there are parades in many other major U.S. cities.
- Shop on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when huge sales abound everywhere and stores stay open late. Since 2005, this has been the busiest shopping day of the year. In 2014, $51 billion was spent by 133 million shoppers.
The History of Thanksgiving
Traditionally, and in the public mind, the first Thanksgiving Day occurred in 1621 when the Plymouth Pilgrim community joined in a feast with local Indians to celebrate the first harvest that the colonists had reaped on American soil. Indeed, 90 Indians and 53 Pilgrims feasted for three days at that event, and it was an official day of giving thanks to God for his blessings. However, the colonists were only carrying on the Calvinist Protestant tradition of designating special public days of thanksgiving for the blessings of the Almighty. It was not really something new in kind.
The feast probably did include turkey since William Bradford informs us in his Of Plymouth Plantation that the land had a “great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.” Incidentally, there is indication that the colonists were familiar with turkey from back in England, even though it was a native American bird. That is because the Spanish had brought back and popularized turkey in Europe in the 1600’s, and in England, it had become a major competitor to goose for Christmas dinners. The exact date of this thanksgiving feast is uncertain, but it seems to have happened in late September or early November.
Throughout the colonial era, thanksgiving church services held, and public, one-time thanksgiving observances were declared by governments. In Virginia, beginning with a thanksgiving day at Jamestown in 1610, such observances were rather routine. The Puritans in Massachusetts began such celebrations in 1630 and had them frequently, eventually making it an annual colonial festival in 1680. In Connecticut, Dutch New Netherlands, Spanish colonies now part of the United States, and throughout the settled American continent, the same pattern was followed.
Safely landing to found a new colony, winning a great military victory, or harvesting a bountiful crop were all reasons to declare days of thanksgiving. There was no uniformity as to the date, however, and it was rare to find an annual observance.
During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress declared numerous days of thanksgiving. One instance came in 1777, after a great victory at the Battle of Saratoga. General Washington declared a day of thanksgiving, and Samuel Adams wrote that the day was to be one of “acknowledging with gratitude their obligation to God for benefits received” and for “imploring him for such further blessings as they stood in need of.”
Under the new Constitution, presidents continued the practice of declaring national days of thanksgiving. Washington famously did so for an observance on Thursday, November 26th, 1789. This came right after the First Amendment had passed the House of Representatives, and Congress petitioned Washington to declare the thanksgiving. Washington said it was a day to be thankful for “the many signal favors of Almighty God” on the nation. In 1795, 1798, 1799, 1814, and sporadically thereafter, there were many federal and state thanksgivings declared.
President Lincoln declared a thanksgiving day in 1863 on the last Thursday of November, which continued annually from then till now. This was done in the midst of the Civil War and was designed for thanksgiving for blessings, penitence for the nation’s sins, and prayers for the wounded soldiers and the widows and orphans of the fallen. Lincoln prayed that God would “heal the wounds of the nation and restore it.”
In 1939, F.D.R. broke the Lincoln tradition in that he declared the date moved to the fourth Thursday in November, which did not always coincide with the last Thursday. This led to controversy and the two dates were dubbed “Republican Thanksgiving” and “Democratic Thanksgiving.” Finally, in 1941, a law was passed that permanently fixed the date according to Roosevelt’s “innovation.”