Behind the Turkey: The Story of Thanksgiving

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Faith Lapidus.

And I'm Steve Ember.  The story of the Thanksgiving holiday is our report this week.


This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day.  Thanksgiving is celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday of November.  The month of November is in autumn, the main season for harvesting crops.

The writer O. Henry called Thanksgiving the one holiday that is purely American.  It is not a religious holiday.  But it has spiritual meaning.

Some Americans travel long distances to be with their families.  They eat a large dinner, which is the main part of the celebration.  For many people, Thanksgiving is the only time when all members of a family gather.  The holiday is a time of family reunion.

Alma Scott-Buczak gathers her family for Thanksgiving dinner every year.  She welcomes about thirty people to her home in northern New Jersey, near New York City.

Guests sit at several tables.  Children eat together at their own table.  Most people who are invited are relatives.  But anyone can bring a friend.

Ms. Scott-Buczak serves the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.  But she adds a few special foods that are especially popular in some African-American homes, dishes like sweet potato pie and corn pudding.

Before the meal begins, the people all say a few words about what they are most thankful for.

The family of Ismaila Sanghua of Silver Spring, Maryland, also eats a large Thanksgiving dinner.  It comes just weeks after their big dinner that celebrated the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, the end of the observance of Ramadan.

Mr. Sanghua was born in Sierra Leone.  He says the family began a Thanksgiving tradition because the children, ages nine through sixteen, wanted to celebrate an American holiday.

VOA producer, writer and editor Subhash Vohra was born in India.  Mr. Vohra has been a journalist there and in Britain and Germany.  He says he is pleased to take part in the traditions of places where he lives.  He says he, his wife and two daughters have been enjoying an American Thanksgiving holiday meal in this country for many years.

More than twenty Korean young people will eat their first Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday in Washington, D.C.  The celebration is for first-year international students at the Wesley Theological Seminary, a graduate school for religious studies.  Several students said they are looking forward to learning about this American custom.

Listen now as the Paul Hillier Singers present an early-American song of thanks, "Give Good Gifts One to Another."


Joan and Sandy Horwitt of Arlington, Virginia, have been holding a Thanksgiving dinner for almost thirty years.  All the guests bring food to share.  The Horwitts started this tradition when they moved to Virginia from the Midwest.

They regretted not being able to be with all their family members.  But they soon met new friends.  So they started a holiday dinner for others who were also unable to travel to family homes for the holiday.

At first, many people brought their babies and young children.  Now some of the first guests are grandparents.

Mr. and Missus Horwitt serve a turkey as the center of the meal.  So do many other Americans.  Most people serve it with a cooked bread mixture inside.

This year, some Americans asked poultry companies if it all right to eat turkey.  These people feared bird flu, a disease that has struck birds in Asia and Europe.  But public officials say no turkeys in the United States have been infected with the deadly kind of avian influenza.

Other traditional Thanksgiving foods served with turkey are potatoes, a cooked fruit called cranberries and pumpkin pie.  Many people eat more at Thanksgiving than at any other time of the year.

Some families serve other meats besides turkey.  And some American homes have vegetarian Thanksgiving dinners.  This means no meat is served.

Many Americans also help others who might not have had a chance for Thanksgiving dinner.  All across America, thousands of religious and service organizations provide holiday meals for old people, the homeless and the poor.

Over the years, Americans have added new traditions to their Thanksgiving celebration.  For example, a number of professional and college football games are played on Thanksgiving Day.  Some of the games are broadcast on national television.

Many people also like to watch Thanksgiving Day parades on television.  Big stores in several cities organize these parades.  For example, Macy's has a very famous Thanksgiving Day parade in New York.

Thanksgiving began with the first European settlers in America.  They gathered their crops, celebrated and gave thanks for the food.

Tradition says Pilgrim settlers from England celebrated the first thanksgiving in sixteen twenty-one.  There is evidence that settlers in other parts of America held earlier thanksgiving celebrations.  But the Pilgrims' thanksgiving story is the most popular.

The Pilgrims were religious dissidents who fled oppression in England.  They went first to the Netherlands.  Then they left that country to establish a colony in North America.  The Pilgrims landed in sixteen twenty in what later became known as Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Their voyage across the Atlantic Ocean was difficult.  Their first months in America were difficult, too.  About one hundred Pilgrims landed just as autumn was turning to winter.  During the cold months that followed, about half of them died.

When spring came, the pilgrims began to plant crops.  An American Indian named Squanto helped them.  When summer ended, the Pilgrims had a good harvest of corn and barley.  There was enough food to last through the winter.

The Pilgrims decided to hold a celebration to give thanks for their harvest.  Writings from that time say Pilgrim leader William Bradford set a date late in the year.  He invited members of a nearby Indian tribe to take part.  There were many kinds of food to eat.  The meal included wild birds such as ducks, geese and turkeys.  That thanksgiving celebration lasted three days.

Listen as Paul Hillier leads his singers in "The Apple Tree."



As the American colonies grew, many towns and settlements held thanksgiving or harvest celebrations. Yet it took two hundred fifty years before a national observance was declared.

In the eighteen twenties, a writer named Sarah Josepha Hale began a campaign for an official holiday.

Support for her idea grew slowly.  Finally, in eighteen sixty-three, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as a national holiday of thanksgiving.  Later, Congress declared that the holiday would be celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday in November.

As in the past, many Americans will gather on Thursday with family and friends.  We will share what we have.  And we will give thanks for the good things of the past year.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver.  Internet users can read and listen to our programs at  I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Faith Lapidus.  Please join us again next week for another report about life in the United States, on THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.

We leave you now as the Boston Pops Orchestra and chorus perform "Prayer of Thanksgiving."