Food traditions around the US holiday explained and how they emerged

For Americans, Thanksgiving dinner is right around the corner on 25 November.

It’s a time for family and friends to return home, be with their loved ones – and eat lots of turkey.

The holiday, proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, is celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November in the US.

As well as family gathering there are a host of public events across the nation – from the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in New York to top American football fixtures – all attended or watched by millions.

The day is also celebrated in Canada and a few other countries (although in Canada it is marked earlier – on the second Monday of October).

But where does the tradition come from? Here’s all you need to know.

What are the origins of Thanksgiving?

The origins of Thanksgiving date back to 1621, and the story of the arrival of the Pilgrims – a group of English families who came to set up a colony in North America.

The Pilgrims – Christians who wanted to create a “new Promised Land”, started their 66-day journey in September 1621, traveling from Plymouth on the Mayflower.

On arrival, they began to establish a village called Plymouth in an area they named New England. As they were unfamiliar with the landscape it was a struggle to produce food. Only half of the 102 passengers survived the harsh winter due to scurvy and outbreaks of disease.

In November 1621, Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans shared an autumn harvest feast that they had labored together to produce, marking what would become the first ever Thanksgiving celebration.

The story goes that a Native American man named Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to catch and produce local food.

He was also key in building an alliance between the Wampanoag nation and the Pilgrims – which led to the celebratory feast to acknowledge their first successful corn harvest.

Sadly, the alliance between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag lasted for just 50 years. Now the traditional narrative of Thanksgiving is increasingly being debated, with critics saying it paints a rose-tinted picture of US history, and the expansion of European settlers across Native American lands

What’s in a traditional Thanksgiving dinner?

Roasted turkey is the traditional centerpiece for Thanksgiving. Braised red cabbage, stuffing, mashed potato and cranberry sauce are commonly served alongside. Carrots, parsnips and brussels sprouts are other favorites.

Turkey and cranberry sauce is a combination dating back to at least 1796, when it was mentioned in cookbook called American Cookeryby Amelia Simmons – the first cookbook by an American to be published in the United States.

A variety of vegetarian options have been developed – such as green bean casserole, a recipe created in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly to promote the Campbell Soup Company’s cream of mushroom soup. Mushroom Wellington and winter squash is another alternative.

For dessert, pumpkin pie is typically served, though a variety of pies are made for the occasion.

How does the Thanksgiving turkey pardon work?

Every year at Thanksgiving, the US president, using his constitutional power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States” pardons a Turkey (or two), and its life is spared.

According to the National Constitution Center, the first president to unofficially pardon a turkey was Abraham Lincoln, who instructed the White House to save a bird given to the president. Lincoln’s son was said to have grown fond of the bird – and the president was an animal lover.

In 1963, John F. Kennedy then started a trend by publicly sparing a turkey given to the White House for dinner (it was wearing a sign that said “Good Eatin’ Mr. President.” Other presidents have followed suit – but it was George HW Bush who made the turkey pardon official, when he took office in 1989.

This year Joe Biden pardoned two turkeys, named Peanut Butter and Jelly. In a ceremony in the White House’s Rose Garden, he said: “Peanut Butter and Jelly were selected based on their temperament, appearance and, I suspect, vaccination status. Yes, instead of getting basted, these two turkeys are getting boosted.”

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