Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving Day is an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada that celebrates the harvest and other blessings of the past year. In the USA, this holiday is celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday in November. This year taking place on Thursday 24 November.
The Canadian holiday and harvest festival is held on the second Monday in October and has been officially celebrated as an annual holiday in the country since November 6, 1879.
Thanksgiving’s Ancient Origins
Although the American concept of Thanksgiving developed in the colonies of New England, its roots can be traced both to Native Americans, as well as back to the other side of the Atlantic. Both the Separatists who came over on the Mayflower and the Puritans who arrived soon after brought with them a tradition of providential holidays—days of fasting during difficult or pivotal moments and days of feasting and celebration to thank God in times of plenty.
As an annual celebration of the harvest and its bounty, moreover, Thanksgiving falls under a category of festivals that spans cultures, continents, and millennia. In ancient times, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans feasted and paid tribute to their gods after the fall harvest. Thanksgiving also bears a resemblance to the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Finally, historians have noted that Native Americans had a rich tradition of commemorating the fall harvest with feasting and merrymaking long before Europeans set foot on America’s shores.
In November 1620 a group of English Pilgrims landed in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, after two months aboard the Mayflower. They were helped through the deprivations of their first winter by local Wampanoag Indians, who offered provisions and advice. Following a successful harvest in 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.
For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States; in it, he called upon Americans to express their gratitude for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday; each celebrated it on a different day. Until in 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day in a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November.
The holiday was annually proclaimed by every president thereafter, and the date chosen, with few exceptions, was the last Thursday in November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to extend the Christmas shopping season, which generally begins with the Thanksgiving holiday, and to boost the economy by moving the date back a week, to the third week in November. But not all states complied, and, after a joint resolution of Congress in 1941, Roosevelt issued a proclamation in 1942 designating the fourth Thursday in November (which is not always the last Thursday) as Thanksgiving Day.
Traditions and Rituals
The Thanksgiving celebration has lost much of its original religious significance; instead, it now centres on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends.
Today over 90 percent of Americans eat turkey, whether roasted, baked, or deep-fried, on Thanksgiving. The turkey is usually served with sweet potatoes or yams and stuffing, which is a mixture of bread cubes, onions, celery, and herbs that is stuffed into the turkey while it roasts. Foods that are common in Massachusetts and have historical significance, like cranberries, are also popular. Thanks to the rich cultural diversity in the U.S., families may also serve dishes that represent their ethnic backgrounds, such as couscous, pasta, or curries. Beer and wine are often served, and some people even create holiday-themed cocktails.
Without a doubt, the highlight of Thanksgiving dinner is dessert. Fresh-baked pies are popular, and most meals end with slices of apple or pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream or ice cream.
Volunteering is a common Thanksgiving Day activity, and communities often hold food drives and host free dinners for the less fortunate.
Parades have also become an integral part of the holiday in cities and towns across the United States. Presented by Macy’s department store since 1924, New York City’s Thanksgiving Day parade is the largest and most famous, attracting some 2 to 3 million spectators along its 2.5-mile route and drawing an enormous television audience. It typically features marching bands, performers, elaborate floats conveying various celebrities, and giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters.
Football on Thanksgiving is as much a part of the holiday as the meal. Many families spend hours watching NFL (National Football League), college, and even high school football games in person or on television.
One of the American Thanksgiving funnier traditions is having the president of the United States pardon one turkey. The lucky bird’s life is spared, and it spends its final years at Mount Vernon, Virginia, the former estate of the nation’s first president, George Washington.
Every year Thanksgiving is followed by a different type of holiday, known as Black Friday. Stores across the nation have extended hours and offer deep discounts and special promotions. People join a holiday-shopping frenzy. Black Friday sales have become so notorious, many stores open for business much earlier than usual. Some businesses don’t even wait until Friday for their sales to begin. They open their doors on Thanksgiving evening. Intrepid shoppers have been known to line up hours before shops open, eager to take advantage of steep discounts.
Days of thanksgiving in Canada also originated in the colonial period, arising from the same European traditions, in gratitude for safe journeys, peace, and bountiful harvests. The earliest celebration was held in 1578 when an expedition led by Martin Frobisher held a ceremony in present-day Nunavut to give thanks for the safety of its fleet. In 1879 Parliament established a national Thanksgiving Day on November 6; the date has varied over the years. Since 1957 Thanksgiving Day has been celebrated in Canada on the second Monday in October.
Traditions and Rituals
Canadian Thanksgiving is more lowkey than its American counterpart. Although the holiday takes place on a Monday, employers are not required to give workers the day off. Families and friends usually gather the Sunday before to celebrate the holiday. Also, Canadian Thanksgiving is not celebrated widely across Canada and is not common in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or Prince Edward Island.
Thanksgiving meals vary by province. Families in Newfoundland typically enjoy what’s known as a Jigg’s Dinner, which is a boiled meat dish accompanied by a split-pea pudding, which is not too far off from the original Thanksgiving meal shared by the explorers.
In Ontario, families also enjoy sweet butter tarts or syrup-filled pastry shells. Across the country, Canadians typically finish the meal with a spicy pumpkin pie topped with cloves, ginger, and cinnamon for dessert.
Similar to Americans, Canadians enjoy football and sports on Thanksgiving, and the Canadian Football League televises its own football doubleheader known as the Thanksgiving Day Classic. There are also Thanksgiving Day parades for families and children to enjoy. The biggest and most well-known is the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest Thanksgiving Day Parade, which airs on Thanksgiving Day with over 120 floats.
Where to celebrate Thanksgiving in London
BRIX is a multi-faceted, New York-style venue set in an 8,500 square foot warehouse in the heart of London Bridge. This year, there will be a special Thanksgiving menu available on 24 November, offering dishes like oxtail mac ‘n’ cheese, shrimp and crab cake, roasted Norfolk turkey with pork stuffing, and sweet potato pie with toasted marshmallows.
Available 24 November, starters from £7, mains from £18. brixldn.com
This Thanksgiving, head there for a traditional three-course menu, featuring starters shrimp bisque with bourbon cream, oysters Rockefeller, followed by a turkey roast with all the trimmings (including candied yams and a potato and leek gratin). For dessert, it’s a classic pecan pie, a pumpkin custard tart, or autumnal baked apples.
Available 24 November, from £65pp. opentable.co.uk
The restaurant is getting involved with Thanksgiving festivities with a four-course feasting menu, which includes Stateside dishes like truffled mac ‘n’ cheese croquettes, cornbread with smoked bourbon butter, thyme roast turkey with cranberry sauce, and a pumpkin tart with pecan and tonka bean ice cream.
Available 24 November. darbys-london.com
The Colony Grill Room
The Colony Grill Room, channels 1920s New York glamour with transatlantic-inspired dishes, maximalist artworks and large-scale murals. This Thanksgiving, it’s paying homage to the American holiday with a special menu designed by executive chef Ben Boeynaems. First up is a pumpkin risotto with smoked ricotta and toasted hazelnuts, followed by a traditional turkey main, complete with an array of Stateside-inspired trimmings. For dessert, it’s pecan pie with spiced chocolate sorbet. There’s also a vegetarian alternative, featuring roasted kohlrabi with sweetcorn velouté, with a nut roast for the main.
Available 24 November 2022, £85pp. colonygrillroom.com
Sea Containers London
Riverside hotel Sea Containers is home to a great restaurant, which is getting involved with the Thanksgiving festivities with a three-course lunch. The meal will begin with a buck carpaccio and beetroot starter, followed by roast turkey with corn and cranberry, plus a sweet potato custard tart with marshmallow ice cream for dessert.
Available 24 November 2022, 12pm – 3pm, £25pp. seacontainerslondon.com
Duck & Waffle
Raise a toast up in the clouds at Duck & Waffle, the sky-high restaurant located on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower. Its Thanksgiving feast will be served as a communal culinary experience, featuring traditional dishes like maple glazed cornbread, bacon wrapped dates, and crispy polenta. For the main event it’s a whole roasted bronze turkey with all the trimmings, alongside classic Thanksgiving sides: think sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole, and truffle mac ‘n’ cheese. Last but not least is a bourbon pecan pie, served with homemade clotted cream.
Available 24 November 2022, £75pp or £115 with wine pairing. duckandwaffle.com
Riding House Café
A Thanksgiving menu will be available across all three of the Riding House Cafe branches, which are located in Fitzrovia, Victoria and Bloomsbury. The menu includes a slow roasted Norfolk Bronze turkey served with maple-buttered sweet potatoes and truffled mac ‘n’ cheese. For pudding, there will be two desserts for the table: pumpkin brûlée pie and pecan pie, served with fluffy vanilla cream.
Available 24 and 25 November 2022, £55pp. riding.house
The Stafford London hotel in St James is preparing once again for Thanksgiving across two of its outlets, The Game Bird restaurant and The American Bar. With a three-course menu available in both The Game Bird and The American Bar, guests can expect a feast: Butternut squash velouté, crispy garlic mushroom and corn bread; Maple-glazed roast Norfolk turkey with roasted yams, sage and onion stuffing, green bean casserole and sour cream mash; and Pecan pie with maple syrup ice cream to finish.
Available 24 November at £59.50 per person. thestaffordlondon.com