Harvest Festival: how Thanksgiving came about and why the President of the United States “pardons” a turkey every year

Telling about one of the most important holidays in the United States and one of its long tradition

Annually on the fourth Thursday of November (in November 24, 2022) is Thanksgiving Day in the United States of America. This is one of the most beloved and important secular holidays for Americans, which marks the beginning of the month before Christmas.


Thanksgiving began in 1621. Shortly before this, the first settlers from England created the Plymouth Colony in North America. But in 1620, the harvest was gone, and the colonists had almost no supplies, so during the winter about half of the British died of starvation. The following year, they managed to harvest a good harvest, and the settlers called the Indians to the harvest festival, who in difficult times helped them grow corn and beans, and also taught them how to fish and collect seafood.

Since then, the Feast of Thanksgiving to God for a successful harvest has been celebrated from time to time, but it has lost its original meaning, becoming simply an occasion to gather with family and friends for a festive dinner and say words of gratitude for all the good things that happened in the past year.

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Setting the date

For the first time, Thanksgiving received the status of an official holiday in 1789, when US President George Washington signed the corresponding document. However, not all states celebrated it then, and even those that did celebrated it at different times – some in October, others in January.

Later writer Sarah Josepha Hale, best known as the author of the song “Mary was a lamb” (Mary Had a Little Lamb), began a campaign for the creation of a national holiday and for 17 years wrote letters to four US presidents demanding that one be introduced. As a result, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln approved the date – the fourth Thursday of November.

In 1939, during the end of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt decided to move the holiday a week earlier, that is, to the penultimate Thursday of the month, in order to give an additional impetus to pre-Christmas trading. Several states followed this rule, but 16 states refused the change and continued to celebrate the holiday on the same day.

Some states have gone even more drastically by celebrating Thanksgiving for two consecutive weeks. After two years of confusion, the final decision was made to secure the fourth Thursday of the month as the day of celebration.

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< h2>Turkey pardon

Over the years, Thanksgiving has developed many traditions around the holiday. For example, no holiday table is complete without a turkey. Every year, more than 50 million of these birds fall on the tables of Americans.

At the same time, every year the President of the United States “pardons” one of the turkeys, saving her from falling into the oven. The first documented “pardon” took place in 1865 at the home of Abraham Lincoln. A live turkey was brought in for a gala dinner, but the president's son Ted asked for her life, which was done.

Some sources claim that the tradition of “pardoning” turkeys originated in the 1940s under Harry Truman, but in fact, he was simply given a live turkey from the National Poultry Federation each year in public (by the way, this gift usually ended up in the oven). In 1963, President John F. Kennedy left the turkey alive, saying that “it still needs to grow up.”

An awkward moment occurred with Ronald Reagan, who did not have time to finish his celebratory speech, and the bird tried to break free and run away. Reagan made matters worse by turning to the bird and joking, “Look, I had a chance to shoot you the other day, but I didn't.”

George W. Bush, Sr. held the first official turkey pardon ceremony in 1989. Since then, it has been held annually at the White House on the eve of the holiday. There are two turkeys at the ceremony: the main hero of the occasion and her “double”, in case something happens to the first one or she runs away. The presidents name these birds and after the ceremony they send them to zoos.

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Other traditions

Thanksgiving traditionally begins with the Macy's Parade (Macy's)in New York. Several million people take to the streets of the city to watch the marchers with huge inflatable figures. The parade has been held annually since 1924, when employees of the Macy's department store chain decided to hold a festival in honor of the holiday.

Also, you can't imagine Thanksgiving without watching a football game. The tradition is relatively new – the first such celebratory match, in which the Detroit Lions (Detroit Lions) and the Chicago Bears (Chicago Bears), fought, took place in 1934 in Detroit.

On holidays, the house is decorated with autumn garlands, the whole family gathers at the table, friends and relatives come, important words and wishes are pronounced. Dinner includes roast turkey with cranberry sauce, stuffed pies, baked sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes, pumpkin soup right in the pumpkin, and for dessert pumpkin pie and baked pears. Everyone is washed down with hot homemade cider.

The very next day, Americans are waiting for the hottest sales of the year (“Black Friday”), and Christmas markets open.

Material published in November 2017 , partially updated in November 2022

Olga Yakusheva

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