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Blog / Thanksgiving Traditions in the US

Thanksgiving Traditions in the US

Thanksgiving is one of the busiest times for travel in the US as families get together to celebrate this special holiday. Every year, Thanksgiving Day takes place on the fourth Thursday in November (which is not always the last Thursday) and it’s followed by Black Friday. The holiday is rooted in an event in US history that took place 400 years ago.

Let’s look at some of the traditions, past, and present, that are part of Thanksgiving in the US and see what you should expect.

Thanksgiving celebratory dinner
Thanksgiving Dinner

What’s Thanksgiving Day all about?

Thanksgiving is widely celebrated in the US. The first-ever Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts and is now modeled on a harvest feast shared by the early Pilgrim settlers and the Native American Wampanoag people in 1621. The colonists were following their familiar harvest tradition, giving thanks for the fruits of their labors which had been harvested and stored to see them through the harsh winter months.

The original Thanksgiving started with “fowling” by the colonists. They may not have found many wild turkeys but would have roasted geese and duck. The Wampanoag people probably contributed their more familiar fare of venison, fish, eels, and shellfish. Together, they would also have enjoyed their seasonal produce from the harvest such as corn, pumpkins, potatoes, and beans.


The original Thanksgiving had special meaning as the settlers may well have starved without the help of the Native Americans. However, the event did not become a national holiday until 1863. This was when President Abraham Lincoln issued a special proclamation making Thanksgiving an official annual celebration.


Thanksgiving is a time when family members often travel great distances to be together over this special holiday. In past years, around 50-55 million people travel by air or long road trip to spend Thanksgiving with their loved ones. Students return home and generations of families come together, perhaps even more so for Thanksgiving than at Christmas.

Thanksgiving dinner with candles on the table
Thanksgiving Dinner

What to eat at a Traditional Thanksgiving Meal

The Thanksgiving meal is prepared during the morning and then served around 3pm. Families gather around the dining table and enjoy the turkey feast together. Some restaurants may offer a Thanksgiving menu or pre-ordered take-out. However, generally, staff are given the day off to celebrate their own Thanksgiving at home with family and close friends.

A typical Thanksgiving meal shared by families across the US includes a turkey and all the trimmings. These include bread stuffing, corn, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes with gravy.

Turkey dinner with all of the trimmings

Other traditional side dishes include Green Bean Casserole. The cut beans are mixed with tinned mushroom soup and seasoning and cooked in the oven. Just before serving, the casserole is covered with French Fried Onions and then returned to the oven to brown and crisp.

Equally popular is Sweet Potato Casserole. The sweet potatoes are cooked and mashed with orange juice, cinnamon, and brown sugar. They are spread into a casserole dish, covered with marshmallows, and heated in the oven until the marshmallows are puffy and golden brown.

Pumpkin Pie

Families tuck into plates heaped with food as part of the turkey dinner. However, you have to leave room for the traditional Thanksgiving dessert – Pumpkin Pie! This delicious treat has a deep pastry shell filled with cooked (often canned) pumpkin, mixed until smooth with sweetened condensed milk, eggs, and spices. It is baked until firm and served with whipped cream. Delicious!

Thanksgiving pumpkin pie
Thanksgiving pumpkin pie

Other pies may also be served as optional desserts, favorites include pecan pie and apple pie, served with cream or ice cream.

Enjoy some American Football

American Football (not soccer) is the game in the USA. Some of the most important NFL matches are played on Thanksgiving Day. Most families sink down in front of the TV after dinner and watch the league rivals compete on what has become one of the biggest days on the football calendar. It creates plenty of friendly rivalries when families have divided loyalties over which team they support!

American Footballer holding a ball
American Football

Attend Macy’s Parade

Many US cities host Thanksgiving Parades, with floats, costumes, and marching bands. The biggest and most famous Thanksgiving Carnival is the Macy’s Parade in New York City. It starts at Central Park West and ends in Macy’s Herald Square.

Thousands of people line the 2.5-mile long route and watch the 3-hour cavalcade that runs from 9am to noon. Giant helium balloon figures of famous cartoon characters add to the noisy carnival atmosphere.

Pardon the Turkey

Turkey in the wild
Turkey in the wild

Another tradition started by President Lincoln is the custom of pardoning the turkey. Each year the US President officially “pardons” a turkey and the lucky bird is sent off to live on a farm rather than heading for the dinner table.

This unusual tradition began in 1863 when President Lincoln’s son, Tad, felt sorry for the turkey. He asked his father to spare the turkey’s life.

This tradition was formalized when George H.W.Bush was President. More recently, when President Trump was in office, he officially pardoned two turkeys, named Peas and Carrots. Other turkeys have had equally tasty names including “Drumstick” the 2017 turkey, and “Tater”, the 2016 bird.

Food Drives

Thanksgiving is a time when many people pause and consider those less fortunate than themselves. Food drives collect and distribute food to the elderly, the homeless, and the needy. Churches host Thanksgiving dinners and invite those who would normally be alone to join the wider spiritual family for the Thanksgiving holiday dinner. It’s a time to give thanks and enjoy each other’s company.

Black Friday

After the relaxation, feasting, and family gatherings on Thanksgiving Day, the following day is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Traditionally there are plenty of bargains to be had in huge Black Friday sales, from electronics to clothing.

Although it is not an official holiday, most Americans take Friday off work to extend Thanksgiving into a long weekend. Whether shopping online or at local stores and malls, Black Friday is traditionally seen as a good day to start Christmas shopping.

Wherever you are on Thanksgiving Day, we hope you enjoy some of these interesting traditions.

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