Origins of Thanksgiving Traditions

Nov 20, 2010 | 2010 Articles, Food Fun, Hometown History, Karen Lewis

by Karen Lewis

Have you ever wondered why people sit around watching football on Thanksgiving and eating pumpkin pie? And where did the turkey come from? There are many traditions connected to this holiday, and each and every one has a story to tell.

Thanksgiving traces its origin back to a celebration by the Pilgrims on the Plymouth Plantation in 1621. They had a great harvest feast to celebrate their first successful growing season. They, as well as various other colonies, celebrated Thanksgiving from time to time through the years. The first national day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777 as a victory celebration honoring the defeat of the British at Saratoga, in New York.

Thanksgiving days were proclaimed at various times throughout the years after that, but not every year until it was proclaimed an annual holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. In 1939, 1940, and 1941 Franklin D. Roosevelt, seeking to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, proclaimed Thanksgiving the third Thursday in November. Controversy followed, and Congress passed a joint resolution in 1941 decreeing that Thanksgiving should fall on the fourth Thursday of November. It has been celebrated every year since then on the fourth Thursday of November.

One of the traditions of the holiday is the giving of thanks for the people and blessings of the past year. This tradition obviously started with the gratitude of those first Pilgrims for the successful harvest. However, there are also many other traditions linked to the holiday today. The following are some of these traditions and an explanation of where these traditions came from.

The Turkey

Though there is no real evidence that turkey was served at the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving, through the ages it has become an indispensable part of Thanksgiving tradition. The tradition of turkey is rooted in the “History of Plymouth Plantation,” written by William Bradford approximately 22 years after the actual celebration. The document was lost for many years, but after it was rediscovered in 1854 the turkey quickly became a popular symbol of Thanksgiving due to Bradford’s telling of the story.

The Thanksgiving Parade

Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia organized the first American Thanksgiving Day parade in 1920. The New York City Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade tradition began in 1924, and has grown into a huge yearly event.


All over America, football on Thanksgiving Day is a huge part of the celebration. There was a college football championship held on Thanksgiving Day in 1876, and it marked the beginning of a tradition. To this day football is a very important part of this holiday for many Americans.

Making a wish

The wishbone from the Thanksgiving turkey is known as a “lucky break.” The tradition of pulling on either end of a bird’s bone to win the bigger piece in order to get one’s wish dates back to the Etruscans of 322 B.C. The Romans brought the tradition with them when they conquered England and the English colonists carried the tradition on to America.

Pumpkin Pie

The pumpkin pies that the Pilgrims ate were very different from what we know as pumpkin pie today. The colonists cut off the top of the pumpkin, removed the seeds, and filled the insides with milk, spices, and honey. Then they baked the pumpkin in hot ashes. Also, early colonists used pumpkin meat as an ingredient for the crust of pies, not the filling.

The introduction of the pumpkin pie we know was probably not until 1796 when Amelia Simmons’ cookbook, American Cookery, was published. It was the first American cookbook written and published in America, and the first cookbook that developed recipes for foods native to America. Her pumpkin puddings were later baked in a crust and were similar to present day pumpkin pies.

Over the years, these various traditions have made their way into nearly every American home, blessing the hearts of many on this special day.

Karen Lewis is a contributor to our Ministry Musings section, currently serving as a missionary in México with her husband and fellow contributor, Rev. Christopher Lewis. Learn more of their ministry at her blog, Beyond The Horizon.


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