American Experience

Turkey Day Traditions

What’s your favorite part of Thanksgiving? Is it the stuffing or the pumpkin pie(s)? Maybe it’s simply gathering around the table sharing stories and gratitude with loved ones. But whatever your usual traditions may be, this year will be a little different.

Due to scheduling conflicts, I had my 2020 Thanksgiving last Saturday evening with my family and my brother’s family who lives nearby. (Yes, it was fully masked, and a group of 10 was spread across four rooms for dinner with socially distant seating and windows opened.) This is not like any Thanksgiving I recall when I was growing up, which always included: a drive to my cousin’s house, multiple families gathering, way too much turkey and pie, football on TV, catching up with distant cousins and hysterical (usually embarrassing) stories shared among the aunts and uncles. I wouldn’t trade the cackling and laughing-until-you-cry memories for anything.

Thanksgiving has taken on many forms throughout American history. In 1789, President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation. That proclamation was made official as a day of thanks by President Abraham Lincoln. Because historians have studied the past, we now know the “original” event with white settlers and Native Americans in the 1600s probably did not look quite like most of us were taught as young children. This is why we study the past.

Whether it’s takeout and a family Zoom, or you’re swapping out the 25-pounder for a small bird, don’t lose sight of the most important part of the day: expressing gratitude with and to the people you love. And have a laugh with family, I insist.

Before you start basting, mashing and stuffing, here are a few stories from holidays past.

Gobble Gobble,

Patrick Madden
Executive Director
National Archives Foundation


As American as Apple Pumpkin Pie

Although Thanksgiving was certainly not a new American tradition, President George Washington officially made it one in 1789 with the first Thanksgiving Presidential Proclamation (are those grease stains we see 🧐?). Proclaiming the first Thanksgiving celebrated under the new Constitution, Washington’s words give insight into the state of the country that year; something which following Presidential Proclamations have come to institute as well.


Feathered Friend Turned Food

Only recently did the annual White House turkey actually end up living out its life on a rural Virginia farm. Up until 1989, it actually became part of the President’s Thanksgiving dinner! President George H. W. Bush was the first to actually begin the formal turkey pardoning tradition, deciding then and there that his new feathered friend would be more enjoyed roaming the fields than in the White House kitchen.

Learn more about the Presidential turkey pardoning tradition.


Don’t Take the 🦃 Out of Turkey Day

President Harry S. Truman’s poor turkey didn’t even make it until Thanksgiving of 1947, as the Truman family enjoyed their holiday meal the day before instead. That year, Americans were urged to eat less poultry, so that grain that would normally go to feed the livestock could be shipped overseas to the hungry and needy in Europe. “Poultry-less Thursday” became a thing, and so the Trumans went all out with the turkey and trimmings on Wednesday night instead. How they were able to enjoy such a hearty lunch before the evening’s dinner feast still remains a mystery.


Mission: Turkey

Although Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, many individuals cannot always be in America to celebrate––including our troops. Members of the U.S. military often partake in their own ways, by catching their own food and enjoying group dinners. Take a look at some images of our Armed Forces having an overseas Thanksgiving of their own.


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