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American History 101: What is Thanksgiving?

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Here in the UK, we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, so you may be wondering just exactly what is Thanksgiving? Well, we’ve got the answers for you. 

What date is Thanksgiving in America?

This year Thanksgiving is on Thursday 25th November and it is celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday in November.

What is Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is an annual holiday in The USA and Canada, celebrating the annual harvest and the last year, though Canada does celebrate it on a different day, the second Monday in October. As an annual holiday most people get 1 or 2 days off of school and work to celebrate with family and friends, it is also common for many people to volunteer in shelters and food drives on Thanksgiving and share the holidays with those that are less fortunate.

What is Thanksgiving celebrating?

The history of Thanksgiving dates back to 1621 to when a group of Europeans now referred to as the Pilgrims invited the Locals who were Native Americans to join them in a feast. The Native Americans had taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, collect maple sap from the trees, catch fish and avoid poisonous plants after coming over on the Mayflower. This created an allegiance with the Wampanoag tribe for over 50 years.

For over 20 years Thanksgiving was celebrated by individual colonies and states rather than as a whole country. 

In 1863 during the civil war, President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated and held in November and thus, Thanksgiving as we now know is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November every year.

Parades are now a major part of the holiday, initiated by Macy’s department store in 1924, this parade in New York is the largest and most famous parade of the holiday in America. It is 2.5 miles long around the city with up to 3 million spectators on the streets with an even bigger TV audience. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade consists of decorated floats, marching bands, performers, celebrities and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters.

Another feature that is synonymous with Thanksgiving as we know it is turkey. Seen as a traditional meal, turkey along with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mash, cornbread pecan pie and pumpkin pie. It’s not clear what was eaten on the original meal but it is known that 90% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving according to the National Turkey Federation.

In 1982 President Reagan started pardoning turkeys and sent them to pasture rather than slaughter, this is an act that presidents of the USA continue to this day.

Many Native Americans and others take issue with how the story of Thanksgiving is presented to the public and school children, as it masks the long and bloody history between the European settlers and the Native American people. Over this period 1000’s of Native American lives were lost and since 1970 protesters have gathered at the top of Coles Hill in Plymouth Rock, where the original Thanksgiving is said to have taken place, to celebrate a national day of mourning.

Thanksgiving is now seen as a traditional, family holiday in the USA where the American people come together and celebrate. Many choose to give back to their community on this day and help those in need. However, the history behind the holiday is a lot darker than many realize with settlers taking land from Native Americans leading to hundreds of years of oppression and genocide. 

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