Thanksgiving: Explaining the turkeys, pies and reunions to non-Americans



Thanksgiving is widely celebrated in the United States and Canada as well as some of the Caribbean islands. As the tradition spreads to other countries including China, how did it begin?

It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the US. Despite historical roots in religious and cultural traditions, Thanksgiving Day is celebrated as a secular holiday.

Thanksgiving origins

The origin of Thanksgiving can be traced back to 1619 in Virginia, where 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County conducted a religious celebration as dictated by the group's charter from the London Company, which specifically required "that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned... in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

The celebration was also marked at Plymouth Colony around the same time, where pilgrims from England invited local North American natives to a harvest feast after an unexpected successful growing season.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) by Jennie A. Brownscombe.

George Washington, the first president of the United States, made "The National Thanksgiving Proclamation" on October 3, 1789, marking the official national celebration of Thanksgiving. However, it was not until 1939 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date on the fourth Thursday of November in a bid to save the economy before Christmas during the Great Depression. The date was approved by Congress in 1941.

Today, young Chinese increasingly celebrate Thanksgiving but only in its vaguest context – eating turkeys and giving gifts to each other to show their gratitude for the good things in life.

Turkeys, pies and family reunions

Thanksgiving is a day for family reunions and big feasts. Family members come back home from wherever they spend most of the year and prepare dinner together.

Turkeys, pies and stuffing top the menu.

Why turkey is served has different explanations. In a letter written by pilgrim Edward Winslow in 1621, he mentioned a turkey hunt before the dinner.

Another theory goes that wild turkeys are native to North America and they were a natural choice for the early settlers.

Donald Trump pats Drumstick the turkey during the National Thanksgiving Turkey Pardoning Ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House, November 21, 2017.

Every year, more than 50 million turkeys are served up on tables across the US. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush started a tradition of saving turkeys from the oven by freeing a 50-pound bird in the White House Rose Garden.

This year, President Donald Trump pardoned two turkeys: 47-pound Drumstick and 36-pound Wishbone.

In the US, Thanksgiving traditionally kicks off the "Holiday Season". The annual Macy's parade in New York signals the beginning of the Thanksgiving Day celebrations, and family members gather together to cook their specialty dishes and get ready for the dinner.

During the dinner, TVs and cellphones are turned off so that family members can enjoy the happiness and warmth of the family. After dinner, people turn on the TV again and watch NFL games together before they wrap themselves up for long queues in front of malls in the dark, cold night for the annual big sales of Black Friday.