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Thanksgiving Facts

Updated on January 11, 2018
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Jen is a preschool teacher, mom, wife, witch, writer, blogger, author, Disney fan who is from Philly and now living in Joplin

What is Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States. In Canada it is celebrated on the second Monday in October. In 2008, Thanksgiving is celebrated on Thursday, November 27 in the US, and October 13 in Canada.

The First Thanksgiving

When we think of Thanksgiving today, images of football, pumpkin pie, parades, and turkey dinner complete with cranberry sauce come to mind.

Of course none of these items were present back in 1621, when the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims sat down together to give thanks for nature’s bounty. Although the celebrants at this particular meal didn’t even call it “Thanksgiving”, this particular harvest feast is the one after which we model our modern-day Thanksgiving celebrations.

People of both cultures had been giving thanks for the fall harvest and other gifts of nature for many centuries. It is interesting to note that the religious element, giving thanks to God, was not present at this particular celebration in 1621, even though the Pilgrims were devoutly religious. In fact, some early Pilgrim "thanksgiving days" were actually fasts rather than feasts. Imagine that!

However, the Native Americans had their own religious customs and beliefs. As a result, during this "first" Thanksgiving, Pilgrims and Native Americans did not focus on what was different between them, but instead concentrated on what they all shared. The two groups of people worked side by side to hunt and prepare food as equals and friends. Their friendship and cooperation was yet another thing for which to be thankful. Other feasts such as this one took place throughout the New World, where settlers and Native Americans worked together and celebrated together as one.

When we sit down to our Thanksgiving dinner, we honor a piece of early American history. The story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans serve as a good reminder for all of us to be thankful for what we have--no matter how much or how little.

How Thanksgiving Became a Holiday

After 1621, future Thanksgiving celebrations occurred at various times throughout the year. George Washington declared a feast of Thanksgiving in 1789, and presidents issued similar yearly proclamations after that. During the Civil War, poet Sarah Hale started a campaign to celebrate the holiday on the same day throughout the country.

President Abraham Lincoln saw it as a way to unite the country, and he in 1863 he proclaimed a national Thanksgiving celebration on the last Thursday in November. It was changed from the last Thursday to the third Thursday by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 as a way to lengthen the Christmas shopping holiday. In 1941, Roosevelt finally changed the date to the fourth Thursday in November, proclaiming it a Federal holiday in 1941.

Turkey: It's What's for Dinner

When the Wampanoag people and the Colonists sat down to their three-day feast to give thanks, they dined on lobster, fish packed in salt, dried and smoked meats, and freshly caught wild game. They did not eat corn on the cob (as Indian corn was only good for making corn meal, not eating whole) or eat pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce since sugar, yams, or sweet potatoes had not yet been introduced to the New England region. Turkey is the big centerpiece of most Thanksgiving celebrations across the United States. Since records of exactly what was eaten at that first celebration in 1621 are fuzzy at best, wild turkey may or may not have even been eaten at the feast.

The thing is, turkey was one of the staples of the settlers' diets at that time anyway, as turkeys were in great supply and were enjoyed for their eggs as well as their abundant meat. So, even if the feathered bird wasn't there at the first Thanksgiving, the turkey quickly became a fixture at future tables.

Today, many families opt instead for a roast goose (which was almost definitely present at the first feast), a ham (which was almost definitely not present), or the new "gourmet" tradition of turducken (a turkey stuffed with a duck that's stuffed with a chicken).

Thanksgiving is one of the few feasts where even the vegetarians can go home full without much modification of the standard menu. Leave out the roast turkey and you still have sweet potatoes, stuffing, corn, cranberry sauce, apple and pumpkin pie, roast squash, brussels sprouts and a host of other seasonal sides and desserts to pig out on. Of course, you can always add Tofurkey (turkey-flavored tofu) or another meat substitute for the non-carnivores and turkey-pardoners of the group.

All the President's Turkeys

And just where did that US Presidential pardoning of the turkey tradition come from? Well, the tradition officially pardoning a turkey dates back as far as Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, or George H. Bush, depending on whom you ask. Photos depict President Truman accepting a turkey at the White House, although it is not known whether the bird ended up on the table or at the farm after the cameras left the scene.

John F. Kennedy was presented with a turkey at Thanksgiving and decided to "just keep it" instead of serve it up. And when President Bush Senior was presented with a holiday turkey, he gave a lighthearted speech where he decided to officially pardon the turkey. Turkeys have been officially pardoned since that day.

Thanksgiving will see many families gathered around the television watching football, cheerleading competitions, or Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade – or all three. The Macy's Thanksgiving Parade (originally called Macy's Christmas Parade) began in 1924 in New York City as a kickoff to the holiday shopping season. Since its first national broadcast in 1947, it has been a staple for TV audiences across the country.

Other families take advantage of the four-day-weekend holiday to take a trip – either to visit family or take a vacation. Either way, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the most heavily trafficked days of the year by car or by plane.

Long airport delays, higher fares, unpredictable weather conditions and other travel hassles have some families opting to go local and bridge the familial distance on less difficult days.

For families who stay close to home, opportunities to participate in community celebrations, as well as opportunities for volunteering, are abundant. Many do-gooders go civic and volunteer at local soup kitchens, shelters, orphanages, and other charities to lend some helping hands during the holiday.

Celebrating with Kids

Ready? Set the Table!

To prepare for the holiday, it's always fun to get the kids involved in menus and food preparation. Setting the table or creating centerpieces are fun ways for kids to get involved and help out. Instead of table linens at the children's table, tape a sheet of brown butcher paper or a roll of white paper to the table and set the table over it. Set out cups of crayons, chalk, markers, or stickers and encourage guests to decorate their own place settings. This can be a hit at the grownups' table, too! Thanksgiving Poems and Performances

Children enjoy writing and performing puppet shows or Thanksgiving plays, and it's a great way to extend the holiday by talking about the themes and leading up to the big day. Memorizing and reciting poems is fun for the second grade and up, and songs are fun for kids of any age.

Tell the story of Thanksgiving through a book such as Thanksgiving Day , by the mother/daughter team of Anne and Lizzy Rockwell (1999, Harper Collins) In the story, the children put on a class play to reenact the first Thanksgiving meal shared by the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims. It serves as a great jumping off point for discussions, crafts, games and even performances related to the holiday. During a lull in the eating and serving, children can get together and make up a poem or story, then recite it for the adults when they finish. Parents can present kids with "story starters" – pieces of paper with a word or phrase on each one – to set a theme, tone or idea to get the group started.

Dinner Games

Some families use the theme of the holiday as a way to encourage the family to share things for which they are thankful. Going around the table and having each guest state one thing they are thankful for can often lead to multiple rounds of expressions of thanks.

This can also be turned into a game where each person writes what they are thankful for on a piece of paper, then put it in a hat. As each one is read aloud, everyone can guess who wrote it. Parents can also give thanks and bless their children at the Thanksgiving table. Placing their hands on each child's head, they can silently or aloud state something they appreciate about their child and add a blessing or wish for the child for the coming year.

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