4 Fun American Thanksgiving Traditions:
Each November, Americans from all kinds of backgrounds celebrate Thanksgiving, a U.S. national holiday centered on friends, family—and lots of food!
The modern American Thanksgiving includes a wide variety of traditions, and different families and regions celebrate the holiday in different ways. This can be quite confusing—especially if it’s your first Thanksgiving in the U.S.—but in this guide, we’ll help you know what to expect.
Before looking at a few of the most common traditions, though, here is some background on the Thanksgiving holiday:
The History of Thanksgiving
In the United States, Thanksgiving is the first major holiday of ‘the holiday season’—the festive time from mid-November to January that includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s (some would say the holiday season starts with Halloween, but others disagree).
The origins of Thanksgiving go back over 400 years to celebrations held by the first European settlers in the ‘New World,’ together with their Native American hosts. Over the following years, people celebrated additional Thanksgiving feasts at various times and locations, but it was American President Abraham Lincoln who finally established a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863.
For many years, American Thanksgiving was held on the final Thursday of November. However, retail businesses disliked this schedule because it greatly shortened the Christmas shopping season in years with five November Thursdays. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt fixed this problem by moving Thanksgiving to its current date of the fourth Thursday of November.
For many businesses and government offices, the day after Thanksgiving is a holiday as well, which makes it a four-day holiday weekend. That’s a good thing—people often need that time to return home from travel or to recover from eating too much pumpkin pie.
So what can you expect to see and experience? Here are 4 American Thanksgiving traditions you should know about:
Tradition #1: Family and Community
Thanksgiving may be the most relationship-focused of all the U.S. national holidays. It’s traditionally viewed as a time to gather with relatives or friends, to learn what has been happening in their lives, to celebrate or share sympathy, and to eat a big meal together.
This focus on family makes the days around Thanksgiving some of the busiest travel days of the year in the U.S. Expect all methods of transportation to be at high volume for the holiday, with the Sunday after Thanksgiving usually being the busiest travel day of the year for U.S. airports.
Typical Thanksgiving gatherings come in all sizes, from a few people to well over twenty. Often gatherings are a mix of different generations, with little kids running around excitedly (maybe still enjoying some of their Halloween candy), younger and older adults playing games or sharing stories, and grandparents taking an after-dinner nap on the couch.
If it happens to be your first Thanksgiving in the U.S., this focus on existing relationships can feel like a barrier. When preparing their guest lists, most Americans are probably thinking more about aunts, uncles, and cousins than about new neighbors or coworkers. Still, many families would love to invite someone new to their gathering if they had a chance.
Community centers and places of worship are good places to look for opportunities to share a Thanksgiving meal with others and make some new friends. Many people who are new to the U.S. simply decide to organize their own Thanksgiving parties, which can also be a great option.
Tradition #2: Food, Food, Food
Thanksgiving in the U.S. is primarily viewed as a day for feasting—that’s how it earned the (slightly annoying) nickname of ‘Turkey Day.’ There are people who look forward all year long to some of their Thanksgiving-dinner favorites: sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, spiced stuffing, and of course, that roasted turkey.
While such food items may form the traditional menu, the truth is that Americans enjoy a wide variety of dishes as part of their Thanksgiving holiday. For some, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without turkey, while others might go for a vegetarian feast, or one featuring foods from around the world.
Thanksgiving meals are often community efforts, in that various guests volunteer (or are asked) to bring a dish for sharing. Because of this, there is usually a great variety of food and people are generally able to find something they like—even if it’s something they brought themselves.
If you’re not great in the kitchen, don’t worry: there are plenty of creative and tasty options available pre-made at your local store as well. But if you’d like to try making a traditional dish or two, you might want to check out a Thanksgiving cookbook such as Thanksgiving 101 by Rick Rodgers (available here on Amazon).
Tradition #3: Thanksgiving Holiday Entertainment
After the gathered family and friends have eaten as much as they possibly can, they often start looking for other forms of holiday entertainment. Three popular Thanksgiving entertainment options are party games, American Football, and the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Once the dinner plates have been cleared from the table, many Thanksgiving party hosts will suggest playing a game of some sort. This might include traditional party games like Charades, classic card games, or more elaborate board games.
Charades (“sha-RAIDS”) is a classic team party game where a team member must act out a word or phrase without speaking, while the rest of the team tries to guess what it is. The rules are easy and a variety of ages and skill levels can play. You can make your own Charades word lists at the beginning of the game, or to save time there are a number of pre-made Charades games available, such as this Party Charades game (available on Amazon).
While playing party games, hosts often serve dessert plus beverages such as coffee or tea (or more wine) as well. Those who aren’t interested in games may sit back and watch the fun, or take the opportunity for private conversations with a smaller group of people.
For some, part of the Thanksgiving fun is watching a game of American Football on TV, and maybe even playing a little football (or other outdoor sport) themselves. Multiple American Football games are broadcast on Thanksgiving day, giving people an opportunity to cheer for their favorite teams or start fresh arguments with their relatives from out of town.
Every year since 1934 (except during World War II, when games were paused), the Detroit Lions have played a football game on Thanksgiving Day. For 2023, three NFL games and one college football game are scheduled, giving football fans plenty to cheer about.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
An entertainment tradition held earlier in the day is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This New York City parade is broadcast on TV each year and includes marching bands, famous people, giant balloons, and fun holiday-themed displays called ‘floats.’ One of the final floats in the parade each year features Santa Claus, whose arrival signals the start of the Christmas (shopping) season. Thanks, Macy’s!
Tradition #4: Giving Thanks
In the middle of the busyness and feasting, it is sometimes overlooked that the original purpose of the Thanksgiving holiday was to take time to give thanks for all the good things in life.
In Thanksgiving’s earliest days, this attitude of thankfulness came from people’s religious belief in God’s blessings and protection for their lives, and many people today continue to enjoy the holiday as an expression of faith. However, with the wide variety of people who celebrate the holiday comes an equally wide variety of ways to share gratitude at this time of year.
For some people, giving thanks involves a special prayer of thanks at mealtime. Others may write personal notes of thanks to people they are close to. Some groups gather in a circle to share one-by-one something that they are thankful for. From year to year, families and friends look back at the changes and experiences that have taken place in order to express gratitude for the past as well as hope for the future.
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Speaking of thanks, thank you for spending time with these 4 American Thanksgiving traditions! Whatever your end-of-year holiday celebrations look like, here’s hoping they are filled with good memories that you can enjoy for years to come.
Thanks for reading this overview of Thanksgiving in the U.S.
If you’d like to know more about American Thanksgiving traditions and history, please take a look at Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience by Melanie Kirkpatrick (available on Amazon)
Also, here is the Thanksgiving recipe book that was mentioned in the article: Thanksgiving 101 by Rick Rodgers (available on Amazon)
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Also, be sure to see my article about ways to make new friends in the U.S.
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