Thanksgiving Traditions Through the Years

Stuff Yourself With Thanksgiving Facts and Tasty Trivia

Pilgrims and Turkey Float in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Pilgrims and Turkey Float in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Kelly / Mooney Photography / Getty Images

Unlike some holidays like New Year's Eve and Fourth of July when people traditionally go out to celebrate, Thanksgiving is commonly observed at home with family and friends. It is also a National Day of Mourning to acknowledge the genocide of Native Americans. Explore some longheld Thanksgiving traditions as well as little-known facts surrounding the holiday.

Thanksgiving Traditions Around the World

In the United States, Thanksgiving Day occurs on the fourth Thursday in November. But did you know that seven other nations also have an official Thanksgiving Day? Those nations are Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Korea, Liberia, and Switzerland.

History of Thanksgiving in America

According to most historians, the pilgrims never observed an annual Thanksgiving feast in autumn. In the year 1621, they did celebrate a feast near Plymouth, Massachusetts, following their first harvest. But the feast most people refer to as the first Thanksgiving was never repeated.

Devoutly religious pilgrims observed a day of thanksgiving with prayer and fasting, not feasting. Yet even though this harvest feast was never called Thanksgiving by the pilgrims of 1621, it has become the model for the traditional Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States. Firsthand accounts of this feast, by Edward Winslow and William Bradford, can be found at the Pilgrim Hall Museum.

Timeline of Thanksgiving Through the Years

  • 1541: Spanish explorer, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, led a thanksgiving Communion celebration at the Palo Duro Canyon, West Texas.
  • 1565: Pedro Menendez de Aviles and 800 resettlers gathered for a meal with the Timucuan Indians in the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, Florida.
  • 1621: Pilgrims and Wampanoag people shared a harvest feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
  • 1630: Resettlers observed the first Thanksgiving of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England on July 8, 1630.
  • 1777: George Washington and his army on the way to Valley Forge, stopped in blistering weather in open fields to observe the first Thanksgiving of the new United States of America.
  • 1789: President Washington declared November 26, 1789, as a national day of "thanksgiving and prayer."
  • 1800s: The annual presidential thanksgiving proclamations ceased for 45 years in the early 1800s.
  • 1863: President Abraham Lincoln resumed the tradition of Thanksgiving proclamations in 1863. Since this date, Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States.
  • 1941: President Roosevelt established the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
  • 1970: United American Indians of New England (UAINE) declare the first National Day of Mourning on November 26th (Thanksgiving Day) to honor the genocide, displacement, and violence against Indigenous Peoples that began with the arrival of colonists and persists to this day.

The Tradition of Giving Thanks

Naturally, one of the most common traditions of Thanksgiving Day celebrations is the giving of thanks. For many families, the day would not be complete without a few Thanksgiving Day Prayers, Poems, Bible Verses, Table Blessings, and Thanksgiving Quotations.

Family Saying Grace at Thanksgiving Dinner
Larry Williams / Getty Images

National Day of Mourning (NDOM)

Every year since 1970 members of the United American Indians of New England, along with other Indigenous Peoples and their allies, gather at 12 noon on Cole Hill in Plymouth to honor the National Day of Mourning. The UAINE explains the significance of this day:

Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.

The tradition is described by the UAINE as "a solemn, spiritual and highly political day". In addition to participating in a march, many people fast and Indigenous speakers address the historical significance of the NDOM as well as present day Indigenous resistance movements around the world. Notably, this tradition is both the most recent and most honest in its telling of the origins of Thanksgiving Day. The establishment of the National Day of Mourning is proof that efforts to suppress the truth of history will always, and relentlessly, be met with the voices of Indigenous resistance.


Another widely celebrated tradition in the United States is the start of the Christmas shopping season the day after Thanksgiving. This day, called Black Friday, is typically the busiest shopping day of the year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, the start of the online holiday shopping season, although most online retailers begin their deals on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving Day Parades

In Midtown Manhattan, New York City, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is held annually on Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving parades are also held in Houston, Philadelphia, and Detroit.


Football is an important part of many Thanksgiving Day celebrations in the United States.

  • The Detroit Lions of the American National Football League have hosted a game every Thanksgiving Day since 1934 (except 1939-1944, during World War II).
  • The Dallas Cowboys have hosted a game every Thanksgiving Day since 1966 (except 1975 and 1977).
  • Many regional and rival college and high school football games are played on Thanksgiving weekend.

Turkey Day Trivia

The centerpiece of most Thanksgiving feasts in the United States is a large roasted turkey, appropriately giving the holiday the nickname "Turkey Day." Another tradition associated with the Thanksgiving turkey is "making a wish" with the wishbone. The person who happens to get the wishbone in their slice of turkey chooses another family member to join them in making a wish as they each hold one piece of the breastbone. They make a wish and then break the bone. The tradition says, whoever ends up holding the larger piece of bone, will have their wish come true.​

Presidential Turkey

Each Thanksgiving Day since 1947, the President of the United States has been presented with three turkeys by the National Turkey Federation. One live turkey is pardoned and gets to live the rest of its life on a quiet farm; the other two are dressed for the Thanksgiving meal.

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Your Citation
Fairchild, Mary. "Thanksgiving Traditions Through the Years." Learn Religions, Mar. 3, 2021, Fairchild, Mary. (2021, March 3). Thanksgiving Traditions Through the Years. Retrieved from Fairchild, Mary. "Thanksgiving Traditions Through the Years." Learn Religions. (accessed March 29, 2023).