Understanding American Holidays: Thanksgiving Edition

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As an international student studying the U.S. for the first time, you may be confused about all the hype surrounding the Thanksgiving Holiday break at the end of November.

To catch you up to speed, Thanksgiving is a national holiday unique to the United States and is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Other countries have similar holidays.

Typically, families travel long distances to gather and feast on turkey and give thanks for the year’s blessings.

This tradition dates back to 1621, a year after the Pilgrims established the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. After a brutal winter with little food and widespread sickness, the Pilgrims asked the Indians to help and they taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and other crops. The following fall, there was a bountiful harvest that inspired the Pilgrims to give thanks and hold a three-day harvest feast with the Indians.

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This custom of giving thanks to the harvest was passed on to other Colonies and eventually became a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

Today Thanksgiving festivities include watching the broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from New York City in the morning, all the way through to see Santa Claus at the end.

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Traveling long distances to reunite with family members, that sometimes you wish you wish you didn’t have to see.

Prepping and cooking all day and of course, eating, lots of eating.  


Food wise, traditionally there is the oven roasted turkey or ham, stuffing, homemade gravy, cranberry sauce, casseroles, mashed potatoes and yams [or sweet potatoes every family has their preferred name.] Then there is the dessert: apple, pumpkin, and pecan pie. 

My family’s tradition, that is pretty unique, is to have hot fudge sundaes with vanilla ice cream and coffee as we wait for the second football game to come on.


Then there is switching back and forth between the football games and the infamous post turkey-tryptophan nap.

(Tryptophan is a natural chemical in turkey that is said to induce sleepiness.)

It’s tradition before the grand meal, to go around the table and state what you are most thankful for. Some family members get real sappy, while others joke and head straight to the food.

As the youngest in the family, I have to say the prayer and giving of thanks before we can dive into our feast. I take this time to reflect on the year and enjoy the time I have with my loved ones because that is really what Thanksgiving is all about.

Thanksgiving traditions vary for every family, but if you have the chance to tag along with a new friend or roommate for the festivities definitely go. I can guarantee it will be something like you’ve never experienced before.

And if you decide to be brave and experience your first Thanksgiving feast check out “How to Survive your First American Thanksgiving,” which we will publish next week.

Please leave a comment and visit us on our Facebook page, thanks!

Rebecca Hankins

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