The fourth Thursday of November is the American holiday of Thanksgiving. It’s one of America’s most deeply-held national traditions, and one that we love to show off to foreign students. A day to eat good food in the company of loved ones and give thanks for what we have – what could be nicer?
But Thanksgiving has developed a whole bunch of other traditions around it that don’t make quite as much sense. Here are some of the weirdest things that happen on American Thanksgiving:
1) Christmas starts
Yup, it might be Thanksgiving, but in America, it’s also the kickoff to the “holiday season.”
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which features giant balloons and elaborate floats marching down the streets of New York, and ends with Santa on his sleigh ringing in the start of Christmas. (Fun fact, the first Macy’s parade was held by first-generation immigrants who wanted to celebrate their new lives in America, and was actually meant to be a Christmas pageant)
The day after Thanksgiving – called “Black Friday” (want to know why?) – kicks off the holiday gift-buying season and is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Stores often offer huge deals on popular items like electronics, and some open in the wee hours of the morning to maximize their hours. The mania around Black Friday can get more than a bit intense – people have actually died in the rush to be first into the stores.
Thanksgiving is also when Christmas comes to America’s radios. Some music stations start playing nothing but holiday-themed music around Thanksgiving and continue until the end of December. According to one website, there are currently well over 100 stations playing 24/7 Christmas music. The stations swear their listeners don’t get sick of it.
2) Alcohol sales skyrocket
The day after Thanksgiving may be one of the biggest days of the year for retail sales, but the night before Thanksgiving is one of the biggest for alcohol sales.
Some bars say their revenues can go up as much as 100 percent compared to an ordinary Wednesday night, and in a Nielsen ranking of the top holidays for sales of beer cases, Thanksgiving comes in 5th (ahead of the Super Bowl!). It’s a particularly big party night for college students, since many will head home and reunite with high school friends.
3) Football mania (American football, of course)
One of the first things an American may think of when you mention Thanksgiving is not food or family, but football. Watching (and playing) football on Thanksgiving has been a tradition since the 19th century. One sports blogger even says Thanksgiving Day church services used to end early to accommodate games.
The modern custom is traced to Michigan’s pro football team, the Detroit Lions, whose owner decided in 1934 that holding a game on Thanksgiving would increase ticket sales. It did, and the practice continued from there.
This Thanksgiving, three games will be televised, so fans will be sure to have football to watch all throughout the day and night – particularly useful for those who are not so thrilled to spend a full day with family.
For those not looking to escape their family, it’s also a common tradition to play pickup games of flag football or touch football.
4) Creative eating
Turkey is the quintessential Thanksgiving dish, but there are other foods considered traditional parts of the feast that are a bit on the stranger side:
Green bean casserole – a baked mix of green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and fried onions (recipe)
Sweet potatoes with marshmallows – a gooey, sweet dish that tastes like dessert but is served as a side (recipe)
Stuffing – cubes of bread that you stick inside your turkey (recipe)
Pies – not a weird food in itself, but the sheer number and variety baked for Thanksgiving is astounding; everything from apple to pumpkin to mincemeat. Martha Stewart’s website even defines pie as a separate category of Thanksgiving food from desserts (recipes)
What might be weirdest about the foods eaten on Thanksgiving is that almost none of them would have been eaten at the first Thanksgiving … which leads us to the last weird thing that happens on Thanksgiving:
5) Celebrating Thanksgiving
Here’s the secret your friends in the States might not want you to know (or might not know themselves!): almost everything Americans celebrate about the legend of Thanksgiving is wrong. The nice story of Pilgrim settlers and Native Americans sitting down to a big turkey dinner to celebrate surviving their first year in the new world? It’s just that – a nice story.
As we said before, the Pilgrims likely didn’t eat turkey and definitely didn’t eat pies, but weirder than that is the fact that the historic meal Thanksgiving celebrates probably wasn’t the first American Thanksgiving at all.
Young children in the U.S. often learn about Thanksgiving by dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians, in costumes that are nothing like what either group actually would have actually worn, and “Plymouth Rock,” the place where the Pilgrims are said to have first landed in America, is nowhere near where the Pilgrims made their initial landfall.
Check out VOA’s debunking of these and other Thanksgiving myths from earlier this week.
But none of that means we can’t take part in the nice ritual of being thankful for our friends and family and all the positive things we have in our lives. So happy Thanksgiving, and we’ll see you back here Monday!