What to Know About Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving celebrations may look a little different this year, but some things never change about this beloved holiday.

Thanksgiving is the second-most popular holiday in the U.S. after Christmas, with nearly 90 percent of Americans celebrating every year. This non-denominational celebration appeals to a broad swath of the population, maybe because there’s no pressure to buy gifts.

And while how we celebrate Thanksgiving may vary from year to year — ahem, pandemic, anyone? — one thing remains the same. Most of us cherish and look forward to a good meal spent in the company of friends and loved ones.

Thanksgiving History

Tradition holds that the first Thanksgiving in what is now the U.S. dates to 1621, when English settlers at Plymouth, Mass., held a three-day feast to celebrate their successful harvest.

It’s widely accepted that the Pilgrims — as the first settlers are collectively known — would not have survived the winter without the help of local Native American tribes. Two historical records document the feast took place with about 50 Pilgrims — all the survivors of the original 102 settlers who arrived on The Mayflower in 1620 — and 90 Native Americans.

A national day of thanksgiving was observed sporadically in the early days of the United States, until it was finally proclaimed an official holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. By 1885, it was a paid national holiday for federal workers. It has since become one of the most important holidays in the country.

But it’s not a party for everyone. For many modern Native American groups, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, as the establishment of the English colonies began centuries of subjugation and genocide of Native peoples.

When Is Thanksgiving This Year?

Since 1941, Thanksgiving in the U.S. has been officially observed on the fourth Thursday in November, which can be any date between the 22nd and 28th. In 2021 it falls on November 25.

Most schools and government offices, as well as many non-retail businesses, are closed on the Friday after Thanksgiving. This led to the rise of “Black Friday” — the unofficial name for the frenzied shopping day that kicks off the holiday retail season.

How To Celebrate Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated with family and friends gathering for a huge meal. Thanksgiving weekend is one of the biggest travel periods in the U.S., as far-flung family members come together for a few days.

The warm tradition of traveling to the homes of grandparents, parents or other family members, whether across town or across the country, is part of the reason the holiday is so well loved. That theme of togetherness has launched dozens of Thanksgiving-themed films and television programs, including A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and the romcom classic You’ve Got Mail.

Thanksgiving Essentials

Roast turkey is a longstanding Thanksgiving symbol, the star attraction on most menus. About 45 million turkeys are consumed in the U.S. at Thanksgiving each year. But baked ham or other meats are popular alternatives, and vegetarians might go for Tofurky or other plant-based meat substitutes.

Side dishes are often more sought-after than the main course, traditionally reflecting the autumnal foods that would have been available to the Pilgrims. They include white and sweet potatoes and other root vegetables, as well as cranberry sauce as a condiment for the turkey. Desserts also showcase fall produce, with apple, pumpkin and pecan pies among perennial favorites.

In recent decades, celebrants are more open to Thanksgiving lunches or dinners that don’t follow traditional menus. That might mean a deep-fried turkey, salmon as the main course, even ordering out for Chinese food. It’s the communal meal with loved ones that’s important.

Thanksgiving Decorations

Typical Thanksgiving decorations relate to autumn and the harvest. You might decorate your home, fireplace mantel or dining table with fall leaves, pine cones or small pumpkins and other gourds. You can also dress your door with a beautiful Thanksgiving wreath or grow a vibrant Thanksgiving cactus to add a splash of color indoors. Give kids construction paper, scissors and markers and have them create autumnal place cards for the table, DIY Thanksgiving decorations, or other crafty ideas. Or go all out with a real Thanksgiving classic — a cornucopia centerpiece that celebrates nature’s bounty. If you’re in need of a quality table to decorate and accommodate guests while hosting Thanksgiving, a folding table is a great choice and an easy way to make sure everyone has Thanksgiving table space. Don’t forget to add Thanksgiving name place cards to complete your holiday table.

It’s also worth noting that some Americans choose to put up Thanksgiving trees, similar to Christmas trees, on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving Activities

Every family has its own traditions. But for many, Thanksgiving is about more than just the meal. It may involve several generations of cooks collaborating in the kitchen, a game of touch football in the back yard, a heated card game over post-meal coffee, or everyone cheering (or dozing off) in front of the TV for NFL or college football games.

Almost every year since 1924, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been broadcast on national television. But with pandemic safety means it will take place without marching bands or spectators.

The COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt introduce new Thanksgiving traditions, particularly meals shared via Zoom or other video chat programs — a tradition we’d like to hang onto. Even in years where families can be together again, it will be fun to invite distant friends and relatives to a virtual Thanksgiving table.

Christmas is just around the corner, find out when to put up Christmas decorations.

Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel, lifestyle and home improvement writer based in rural Umbria, Italy. Her work appears in The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure, Reader's Digest, TripSavvy and many other publications, and she is the author of several guidebooks. Liz's husband is a stonemason and together, they are passionate about the great outdoors, endless home improvement projects, their tween daughter and their dogs. She covers a variety of topics for Family Handyman and is always ready to test out a new pizza oven or fire pit.