The Origins of 10 Thanksgiving Traditions
There's a lot more to Thanksgiving than just the turkey and the Pilgrims. And though most celebrations will break out the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, there are a number of other customs that you might be less aware of (and some that are becoming too ubiquitous to miss).
1. THE TURKEY TROT FOOTRACE
Many towns host brisk morning runs to lessen the guilt about the impending feast (distances and times vary from race to race, but the feel-good endorphins are universal). The oldest known Turkey Trot footrace took place in Buffalo, New York, and has been happening every year since 1896. Nearly 13,000 runners participated in the 4.97 mile race last year.
2. THE GREAT GOBBLER GALLOP IN CUERO, TEXAS
During their annual TurkeyFest in November, they gather a bunch of turkeys and have the "Great Gobbler Gallop," a turkey race. It started in 1908 when a turkey dressing house opened in town. Early in November, farmers would herd their turkeys down the road toward the dressing house so the birds could be prepared for Thanksgiving. As you can imagine, this was quite a spectacle—as many as 20,000 turkeys have been part of this "march". People gathered to watch, and eventually the first official festival was formed around the event in 1912. The final event of the celebration is the Great Gobbler Gallop, a race between the Cuero turkey champ and the champ from Worthington, Minnesota (they have a TurkeyFest as well). Each town holds a heat and the best time between the towns wins. The prize is a four-foot trophy called "The Traveling Turkey Trophy of Tumultuous Triumph."
From 1939 to 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up by a week. In '39, Thanksgiving, traditionally held on the last Thursday of November, fell on the 30th. Since enough people would wait until after Thanksgiving to start their Christmas shopping, Roosevelt was concerned that having the holiday so late in the month would mess up retail sales at a time when he was trying hard to pull Americans out of the Great Depression. It didn't entirely go over well though—some states observed FDR's change, and others celebrated what was being called the "Republican" Thanksgiving on the traditional, last-Thursday date. Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas all considered both Thanksgivings to be holidays. Today, we've basically split the difference—Thanksgiving is held on the fourth Thursday of November, regardless of whether that's the last Thursday of the month or not.
4. THE PRESIDENTIAL TURKEY PARDON
The story goes that since at least Harry Truman, it has been tradition for the President of the U.S. to save a couple of birds from becoming someone's feast. Records only go back to George H.W. Bush doing it, though some say the tradition goes all the way back to Abraham Lincoln pardoning his son's pet turkey. (Lincoln is also the President who originally declared that the holiday be held on the last Thursday of November.) In recent years, the public has gotten to name the turkeys in online polls; the paired turkeys (the one you see in pictures and a backup) have gotten creative names such as Stars and Stripes, Biscuit and Gravy, Marshmallow and Yam, Flyer and Fryer, Apple and Cider, and Honest and Abe last year.
5. THANKSGIVING PARADES
Everyone knows about the Macy's Parade, but for a more historically accurate parade, check out America's Hometown Thanksgiving Parade in Plymouth. The parade starts with a military flyover and continues with floats and costumed people taking the parade-goers from the 17th century to the present time. There are nationally recognized Drum and Bugle Corps, re-enactment units from every period of American history, and military marching units. And military bands play music honoring the men and women who serve in each branch: the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard.
6. BLACK FRIDAY
Black Friday, of course, is the day-after sales extravaganza that major (and minor) retailers participate in. Most people think that the term comes from the day of the year when retail stores make their profits go from red to black, but other sources have it originating from police officers in Philadelphia. They referred to the day as Black Friday because of the heavy traffic and higher propensity for accidents. Also, just because you hear that it's "the busiest shopping day of the season" on the news, don't believe it. It's one of the busiest days, but typically, it's hardly ever the busiest, though it typically ranks somewhere in the top 10. The busiest shopping day of the year is usually the Saturday before Christmas.
7. CYBER MONDAY
Black Friday is quickly being rivaled in popularity by Cyber Monday. It's a fairly recent phenomenon—it didn't even have a name until 2005. But there's truth to it—77 percent of online retailers at the time reported an increase in sales on that particular day, and as online shopping has continued to grow and become more convenient, retailers have scheduled their promotions to follow suit.
8. BUY NOTHING DAY
And in retaliation for Black Friday, there's Buy Nothing Day. To protest consumerism, many people informally celebrate BND. It was first "celebrated" in 1992, but didn't settle on its day-after-Thanksgiving date until 1997, where it has been ever since. It's also observed internationally, but outside of North America the day of observance is the Saturday after our Thanksgiving.
It's a common sight across the U.S.: parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles passed out on the couch watching football after dinner. Well, we have the first Detroit Lions owner, G.A. Richards, to thank for the tradition of Thanksgiving football. He saw it as a way to get people to his games. CBS was the first on the bandwagon when they televised their first Thanksgiving game in 1956. The first color broadcast was in 1965—the Lions vs. the Baltimore Colts. Since the 1960s, the Dallas Cowboys have joined the Lions in hosting Thanksgiving Day games, and the NFL Network now airs a third game on that night.
10. NATIONAL DOG SHOW
Of course, if football isn't your thing, there's always the National Dog Show. It's aired after the Macy's Parade on NBC every year. Good luck telling your dad that he'll be enjoying Springer Spaniels instead of the Lions or Cowboys, though.
A version of this story originally published in 2008.