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Thanksgiving Day in United States

Quick Facts

Thanksgiving Day in the United States is traditionally a holiday to give thanks for the food collected at the end of the harvest season.

Local names

NameLanguage
Thanksgiving DayEnglish
Día de Acción de GraciasSpanish
See list of observations below
Thanksgiving Day in the United States started as a way of giving thanks to food collected from a good harvest or problems that were fixed. It originated in 1621 and was a religious festival, but is now largely secular. It is now a holiday on the fourth Thursday of November.
Thanksgiving Day
Thanksgiving Day is a federal holiday in the United States. ©iStockphoto.com/ Olga Lyubkina

What do people do?

It is traditional for families and groups of friends to get together for a large meal. This often consists of a turkey, stuffing, different types of potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy and maize and other seasonal vegetables. The meal also often includes pumpkin pie. Many of these foods are native to the Americas and were not available in Europe at the time of the first settlers. This adds to their symbolism of giving thanks for a good harvest in a new country.

Thanksgiving Day parades are held in some cities and towns on or around Thanksgiving Day. Some parades or festivities also mark the opening of the Christmas shopping season. Many football games are played and watching them is a popular activity. Some people have a four-day weekend so it is a popular time for trips out of town and to visit friends and family.

Public life

Most government offices, businesses, schools and other organizations are closed on Thanksgiving Day. Many offices and businesses allow staff to have a four-day weekend so these offices and businesses also closed on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day. Public transit systems do not usually operate on their regular timetables.

Many families and groups of friends get together for Thanksgiving so it is one of the busiest periods for travel. This can cause congestion and overcrowding. Seasonal parades and busy football games can cause disruption to traffic locally. Some states, such as Maine and West Virginia (among others), have an extra day for the Thanksgiving holiday. The following day is known as Thanksgiving Friday in these states.

Background

There are claims that the first Thanksgiving Day was held in the city of El Paso, Texas in 1598. Another early event was held in 1619 in the Virginia Colony. Many people trace the origins of the modern Thanksgiving Day to the harvest celebration that the Pilgrims held in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. However, their first true thanksgiving was in 1623, when they gave thanks for rain that ended a drought. These early thanksgivings took the form of a special church service, rather than a feast, as is common now.

In the second half of the 1600s, thanksgivings after the harvest became more common and started to become annual events. However, it was celebrated on different days in different communities and in some places there were more than one thanksgiving each year. The celebrations often included prayer and fasting and so were quite different to the modern holiday. George Washington, the first president of the United States, proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day in 1789.

Since 1863, Thanksgiving Day has been an annual holiday in the United States. A more recent tradition started in 1947. Since then, the president has been presented with a live turkey, which he 'pardons'. The turkey then spends the rest of its life peacefully on a farm.

Not everyone sees Thanksgiving Day as a cause for celebration. The European settlers had a massive destructive effect on the Native American peoples and their culture. Each year since 1970, a group of Native Americans and their supporters have staged a protest for a National Day of Mourning at Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving Day Observances

WeekdayDateYearNameHoliday typeWhere it is observed
ThuNov 271980Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 261981Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 251982Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 241983Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 221984Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 281985Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 271986Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 261987Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 241988Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 231989Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 221990Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 281991Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 261992Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 251993Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 241994Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 231995Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 281996Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 271997Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 261998Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 251999Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 232000Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 222001Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 282002Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 272003Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 252004Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 242005Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 232006Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 222007Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 272008Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 262009Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 252010Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 242011Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 222012Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 282013Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 272014Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 
ThuNov 262015Thanksgiving DayNational holiday 

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