American Thanksgiving – What You Need to Know

American Thanksgiving - What You Need to Know

If you are an international student and this is your first American Thanksgiving, you are in for a treat. Thanksgiving is one of the most popular holidays in America, second only to Christmas. It officially marks the beginning of the holiday season, and gives you the perfect opportunity to learn about American culture in depth. On this day, families who live apart make it a point to celebrate the occasion together. Large family dinners mark the occasion where people observe the blessings of the past year.

As family dynamics change over time, so have the traditions and customs. But, in essence, the tradition of Thanksgiving has always been to show gratitude for the many blessings and good fortune we receive each year. This holiday reflects a sense of interconnectedness among people and cultures, acting as a reminder to appreciate all that we have to be thankful for. 

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History of Thanksgiving

In the United States, the origin of Thanksgiving is typically associated with the Plymouth settlers of 1620. In that year, a group of English settlers called pilgrims arrived to the bay of Massachusetts. Weakened by epidemics and extreme weather conditions, the early settlers struggled to survive in the New World. But then, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe offered to strike an alliance with the settlers.

With the help of the native tribe, the Pilgrims settled and colonized the land around Massachusetts Bay, known then as Plymouth Colony. A year later, in November of 1621, Governor William Bradford organized a three-day celebratory feast in honor of the winter harvest, and invited the Wampanoag tribe to join them in order to express his gratitude.

This legendary feast later came to be known as the First Thanksgiving in America. Although this story is widely accepted, some historians remain apprehensive in their belief of this narrative. Some scholars argue that a group of Spanish explorers held Thanksgiving in Saint Augustine, Florida, way back in 1565.

In 1789, George Washington was the first U.S. president to celebrate Thanksgiving. In 1827, New York became the first city to officially adopt Thanksgiving as an annual holiday. Later, in 1863 in an attempt to unite a rebellious country during the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln scheduled the official Thanksgiving holiday to be the last Thursday of November.

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Popular Thanksgiving Customs

Although Thanksgiving is widely associated with the United States at present, its roots can be traced back to the other side of the Atlantic. Countries like Canada, Germany, Grenada, and Liberia also celebrate Thanksgiving, though on different dates. The festival is most commonly associated with a celebration of a bountiful harvest. It is not uncommon to find many other countries, like China and Japan, celebrating similar rituals under different names.

In the U.S., the customs of Thanksgiving are steeped in American history and popular culture. Homes are often decorated with candles and adorned in the season’s colors – red, gold, orange and brown. Here are a few common American Thanksgiving traditions:

  • Turkey dinners – Typically, the average American family will sit down for a large dinner complete with stuffed turkey, yams, and pumpkin pie. Roast potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce, green beans, and rolls are some other must-haves for a Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Presidential turkey pardon – Perhaps one of the more amusing customs of Thanksgiving, this tradition was started by John F. Kennedy in 1963. Each year, the president publicly spares one or two turkeys from becoming Thanksgiving dinner.
  • National parade – There are annual Thanksgiving parades held each year in downtown Detroit, Michigan and New York, New York. The parades are broadcast live on TV every Thanksgiving. Both cities have been organizing the parade for more than 80 years now.
  • Turkey trots – The American Turkey trot was created to bring friends and families together on Thanksgiving. Today, it is the most popular public race, perhaps even more so than the 4th of July race. People dress up as turkeys to take part in this 10k race, perhaps as a good way to earn their turkey dinners. The costumes became a tradition in the early 1980s.
  • Football leagues – The concept of football leagues developed in 1876, when the football teams of Yale and Princeton began an annual tradition of challenging each other. Today, gridiron football players of virtually every level – from high school to the NFL – play football on Thanksgiving Day.
  • Black Friday sale – The day after Thanksgiving has been transformed into a day of shopping frenzy. Few people would be unfamiliar with this term, as it has caught on in global markets as well. On this day, shops and businesses offer huge discounts across their platforms, while consumers rush to wait in lines so they can take advantage of the amazing deals.
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Thanksgiving as an Opportunity to Make New Bonds

If you have a local friend and are lucky enough to be invited to their family dinner, don’t forget to bring your host a small gift. It could be anything from wine to flowers, but even a small token of appreciation will go a long way in building relationships. Many universities hold their own on-campus events at Thanksgiving for international students. This includes dinner parties with other fun events like concerts and tournaments.

Given all that is going on in the world, Thanksgiving marks the perfect opportunity to embrace hope and gratitude. It is also a great platform for bonding and socializing. As a student in a foreign country, immersing yourself in this holiday is the best thing you can do. It is the perfect way to get acquainted with American customs while enjoying a hearty dinner.

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