Beyond pilgrims breaking bread with Native Americans in colonial Massachusetts, little is known about the origin of the modern Thanksgiving holiday or why we partake in some of its longstanding traditions. Following are seven ceremonial Thanksgiving customs, including the consumption of turkey, explained.
1. Carving the Turkey
For most, the annual Thanksgiving feast begins with the patriarch carving the turkey. The men of the house do the honors as a throwback to the days when they brought home fresh kill for the feast. As a rite of passage, fathers traditionally pass the ritual down to their sons when they reach manhood—or when they learn to behave at the table, whichever comes first.
2. Gobbling up Turkey
Turkey is practically synonymous with Thanksgiving—so much so that the holiday is typically referred to as “Turkey Day.” The association goes back to the very first Thanksgiving in 1621, when Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford was said to comment on “the great store of wild turkeys.” Interestingly enough, however, venison, fish, and duck made up the bulk of that first feast. But it’s the fair feathered fowl that has staked its claim on the Thanksgiving dinner table; according to a recent survey conducted by the National Turkey Federation, nearly 88 percent of Americans said they eat turkey at Thanksgiving.
3. Crafting Cornucopias
Although the cornucopia originates in ancient Greek mythology, the “horn of plenty,” which signifies abundance and nourishment, has long been associated with North American Thanksgiving holidays. This fitting symbol for the festival of giving thanks typically takes the shape of a large, hallow horn-like wicker basket filled with various fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
4. Enjoying the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
Approximately 44 million people watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. How did it become the premier turkey-day television event? In the early 1900s, people started associating Thanksgiving with the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. To capitalize on this and celebrate the expansion of its flagship store in Herald Square (making it the world’s largest department store at the time), Macy’s announced it would treat New York to a special holiday event in 1924—the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Soon after, Macy’s partnered with NBC to broadcast the parade so that people beyond the Big Apple could delight in the festivities every Thanksgiving morning.
5. Breaking the Wish Bone
The only thing more exciting than finding the wish bone is getting the “lucky break” and scoring the larger piece—along with the wish. The tradition of breaking wish bones dates back to ancient Roman times, when Etruscans fought over chicken and hen bones because they were thought to bring good fortune. The English inherited this tradition and brought it with them to the New World, but when they discovered the land rampant with wild turkeys, they simply applied the custom to that type of bird instead.
6. Watching Football
Football is just as big a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and all the trimmings. Watching gridiron games on Thanksgiving precedes the NFL itself—in fact the earliest turkey-day games date back to the 1890s. In the 1920s, the Detroit Lions began their franchise Thanksgiving-Day tradition as a way to boost attendance. Other teams soon followed suit, but Detroit and Dallas are the two NFL teams that consistently play on Thanksgiving Day.
7. Giving Thanks
Many families begin their Thanksgiving feast with prayers, blessings, or proclamations on what they are thankful for—not unlike the Plymouth pilgrims in 1621 who hosted the first Thanksgiving to celebrate good harvest, survival, and peace.
Photo source: martha_chapa95