Thanksgiving is a (North) American holiday, celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November every year. Most people get one or two days off work or school to celebrate with family or friends, and it is considered to mark the end of fall and the beginning of the Christmas holiday period. Many people use Thanksgiving as a time to reflect on the good things in their lives and give thanks for them, and also to spend time with loved ones, while eating traditional meals together.

History and controversy of Thanksgiving

But the history of Thanksgiving is decidedly controversial. It goes back to the early 1600s, when Europeans travelled over to America to start new lives.

The Pilgrims (a group of European settlers) were struggling to grow enough crops to harvest and sustain themselves. A group of Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to do this successfully. In 1921, the Pilgrims invited the local Native Americans to join them for a feast as a way of giving thanks… This was, of course, the first Thanksgiving celebration. Which, if viewed without context, seems like a fairly nice reason to have a holiday.

For many, though, Thanksgiving is inseparable from the context surrounding its origins. For some, the celebration symbolizes the culmination of a bloody subjugation and conquest over Native Americans at the hands of white European colonists. The holiday itself is fraught with cultural appropriation and frequently whitewashed, all of which has lead Professor Robert Jensen of the University of Texas at Austin, to state: “One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.” If you’re interested in learning more about this perspective, read the article here.

There are two sides to every story, and if you do celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s important to educate yourself on all the aspects of a Thanksgiving that has implications for Native Americans to this day.

What does it stand for now?

For the majority of modern-day Americans, Thanksgiving is just that, a time for giving thanks. They reflect upon the past year and all the reasons they have to be grateful to other people or for the good fortune they have received. Families gather together to have a glorious feast with delicious seasonal produce and to spend time with one another, reminiscing about the year, or playing games. Although most widely celebrated in the USA, thanks to migration, many American migrants have brought their celebration to their new countries.

Find out more about versions of Thanksgiving culturally rooted in other countries here!

Traditional Thanksgiving celebrations

So what are some traditional Thanksgiving celebrations that you could try out this year? Anyone familiar with the festival, will recognize this first one…

The food

A family gather around for a traditional Thanksgiving celebration with a feast

Yes, Thanksgiving celebrations in America have given rise to many traditions… But none more beloved than the glorious Thanksgiving meal! Most traditionally the main meal consists of roast turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and gravy.

Another popular dish that was invented by Dorcas Reilly from the Campbell Soup company, first gained popularity in the Midwest but has spread across the country (and now the world) – green bean casserole. The “official” recipe includes mushroom soup (preferably Campbell’s, of course), green beans, and french fried onions.

For dessert, nothing says Thanksgiving celebration more than a homemade pumpkin pie.

The President and the turkey

Do you know this funny traditional Thanksgiving tradition already? Imagine it: The scene is the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. The date is sometime in the 1940s, when the ceremony first kicks off. Representatives from the National Turkey Federation present the President of the United States with a turkey each year, to be slaughtered and eaten. Skip forward to the 1970s, however, and the tradition is up for a change. Then President, George H. W. Bush, decides to grant an official “pardon” to the turkey, meaning it can go and be free and live out its natural life span without fear of being eaten. Lucky turkey! Every president since has carried on this tradition.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Another traditional part of the Thanksgiving celebrations is tuning into to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The annual parade, held in New York is the world’s largest, and is televised live for people who can’t physically be there, to watch at home.

Black Friday

Probably the most recent ‘tradition’ that is linked to Thanksgiving celebrations is what comes the day after; Black Friday. Since at least 2005, Black Friday has been the busiest shopping day of the year in the United States, with many stores offering highly discounted goods. This is a tradition which has spread to South America and Europe in recent years and seems to be growing increasingly popular.

Alternative ways to celebrate Thanksgiving

A family gather around a kitchen island covered in food chatting and laughing during Thanksgiving

Tired of the traditional? Or maybe you’ve decided you don’t want to celebrate in the old ways due to the day’s history and current implications? Here are some different ways to celebrate instead.

#1 Have a communal birthday party!

For many families who are scattered over the country (or even the world), Thanksgiving can be one of the few times everyone gets to see each other, and so birthdays are often missed. Especially since the start of the pandemic. Why not take this opportunity to celebrate everybody’s birthdays, all together, with cake, candles and singing?

#2 Turn giving thanks into a game

One great alternative Thanksgiving celebration is gathering your loved ones together and, before you eat, asking everyone to write down a few things they are grateful for over the past year. Put the “thanks” into a bowl. After the meal, take it in turns going around the group and guessing who wrote which note. It’s a lovely way to remind everyone of all the good things that have happened and gives everyone something to talk about.

#3 Take a trip

One way to be sure to make your alternative Thanksgiving celebrations decidedly different is to take a vacation to another country. As the USA is the only country where it is celebrated at this time, jetting off to another continent is a great way to escape and unwind.

If this is the idea for you, check out the best Places to Visit in November 2021

#4 Host Thanksgiving in pajamas

There is a lot to think about when hosting a traditional Thanksgiving meal, so why not take the hassle out of deciding what to wear and dressing up?

Let all your guests know to come in their pjs, and they will be thankful for their elasticated waistbands by the end of it!

#5 Giving not gobbling?

Feel like giving rather than gorging? Collect together a box of non-perishable items and take them to your local food bank or soup kitchen. You will be helping out those in need and can spend the rest of the day in whichever way you please.

#6 Host a Friendsgiving

Take the time to celebrate (and thank) your adopted family (besties) by hosting an evening of fun and food. We’ve got more tips on hostings an unforgettable Friendsgiving right here.

Happy alternate Thanksgiving!

A woman eats a taste of the Thanksgiving dinner offered by her partner

However, you choose to mark the day, we wish you lots of fun and hope you found some alternative ways to celebrate Thanksgiving you love. If you’re still in need of Thanksgiving inspiration, check out the articles below.


Hiya, I’m Maud. I’m an English girl who's moved to Berlin - because who wouldn’t fall in love with a country which has words like ‘Kummerspeck’ hidden around every corner... I love traveling and finding out the quirks of each country - and what better way to remember them than on a postcard?

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