Thanksgiving Day: Filled With Family Traditions and, Oh Yes, Food

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember.  Our subject this week is what the writer O. Henry called the one day that is purely American -- Thanksgiving.


This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day.  This is the one hundred forty-third official observance of the holiday.  But the tradition is much older.  Thanksgiving is an autumn harvest festival like those found in many cultures.

Today the holiday is a time of family reunions, parades and watching football games on television.  And, oh yes, food.  For millions of Americans, Thanksgiving is a day spent cooking, eating and talking.

Thanksgiving is what the social scientists call a civil holiday.  It is not religious but it does have spiritual meaning.  For some families, Thanksgiving may be the only time of year when everyone gets together.  The government says the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year for long-distance travel as people return from gatherings.


Paul Hillier leads the Theatre of Voices in a traditional Shaker song, "Give Good Gifts to One Another."  The recording is from the album "Home to Thanksgiving -- Songs of Thanks and Praise."

Thanksgiving is also when thoughts start to turn to other kinds of gifts.  The Friday after Thanksgiving is the traditional start of the shopping season for Christmas and the other winter holidays.

And speaking of traditions, a popular Thanksgiving tradition is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.  Employees of the huge Macy's department store on Herald Square organized the first parade in nineteen twenty-four.  Many of them wanted to hold a big parade like the ones in Old World Europe.  So they dressed in costumes and borrowed some animals from the zoo.  They also carried small balloons that floated just overhead.

A few years later came big balloons, the kind that the parade is famous for.  But they burst.  The parade planners soon learned better ways to control the balloons.

In nineteen thirty-four, a big Mickey Mouse balloon made of rubber appeared in the parade for the first time.  Mickey Mouse remains a popular character in the parade.

But for three years during World War Two, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade had to be cancelled.  The military needed rubber for the war effort.

Two and one-half million people are expected on the streets of Manhattan this Thursday to watch the parade.  Millions more will see it on television.  And, as always, there will be lots of things to see, including eight hundred performing clowns.

But all eyes will be on the huge balloons that will rise almost fifteen meters above the streets.  Many of the balloons are based on popular cartoon and game characters.  Plans call for the balloons to be filled with helium gas on Wednesday.

Workers control the balloons with ropes, but that can be difficult.  They have to make sure that winds do not blow the balloons into buildings or parade-watchers.  But accidents can happen.  There have been two in recent years.

Last year, ropes from a big balloon caught on a streetlight.  Two sisters were injured when pieces of the streetlight fell on them as they watched the parade.

The accident was similar to what happened in nineteen ninety-seven.  The victim was a woman on the street.  She was injured so badly that she was in a coma for almost a month.  But she survived.

And just last month that same woman, Kathleen Caronna, had something else to be thankful for.  She was not home when a small plane hit the Manhattan building where she lived.  Her apartment was heavily damaged, and the crash killed both people on the plane.

After the balloon incident last year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed a committee to improve the safety of the parade.  This year, more steps will be taken to measure the wind and to report the information to the balloon controllers.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is marking its eightieth anniversary this year.  The parade traditionally includes invited marching bands.  But now, in addition, the parade will have its own marching band.

Two hundred musicians and dancers will take part in what is called the Macy's Great American Marching Band.  The young musicians will represent all fifty states and the District of Columbia.


Now we come to the part of the holiday that Thanksgiving memories are often made of -- the big Thanksgiving Day meal.  Some families serve ham.  Others serve a meatless dinner.  But the traditional main dish is turkey.  Most people cook the bird in an oven; some prepare the turkey other ways, like fried in oil.

Turkey on Thanksgiving is usually served with a bread mixture inside.  Some Americans call it stuffing; others call it dressing.  Popular side dishes on Thanksgiving include cranberries, sweet potatoes and green beans.  Then for a rich, sweet dessert there is often pumpkin pie or pecan pie.

Many Thanksgiving tables also are heavy with other dishes, often brought by guests.  And if the guests eat all that is served, they too will feel heavy.

Some people like fruit soup, green salads and baked potatoes with their turkey.  Others like baked squash, creamed onions, creamed spinach and corn pudding.  Many people eat more at Thanksgiving than any other time of the year.

For people who do not have much food, or a home to go to at Thanksgiving, charity groups play an important part.  To help the needy, religious and service organizations across the country serve special Thanksgiving meals.


Tradition says the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in sixteen twenty-one.  The Pilgrims were religious dissidents who fled oppression in England.  First they went to the Netherlands, then left to establish a colony in North America.  They ended up at what later became known as Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Their trip across the Atlantic Ocean and their first months on land were difficult.  About one hundred Pilgrims arrived just as autumn was turning to winter.  About half of them died during the cold months that followed.

As the story goes, when spring came the Pilgrims planted crops with the help of an American Indian named Squanto.  By the end of summer there was a good harvest of corn and barley.  There was enough food to last through the winter.  The Pilgrims held a celebration of thanks for their harvest.  A nearby Indian tribe, the Wampanoags, took part and the feast lasted three days.

But modern Indians have noted that the friendship did not last for long.  Other English settlers who arrived later did not need help from the Indians the way the Pilgrims did.  The Indians and the settlers were at war within a few years.  Many of the Wampanoag Indians died in battle or from diseases that arrived with the settlers.

Over the years, as the American colonies grew, other communities held thanksgiving or harvest celebrations.  Later, different states celebrated Thanksgiving on different days.

But a nineteenth century writer and editor, Sarah Hale, believed that all Americans should give thanks on the same day.  For years she campaigned for a national holiday.  Her wish came true in October of eighteen sixty-three with a declaration from President Abraham Lincoln.  He invited Americans to observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving and praise to God.

At the time, it might not have seemed that Americans had much to be thankful for.  It was in the middle of the Civil War.  The great Battle of Gettysburg had just taken place that summer in Pennsylvania.  Yet the war that divided the nation also, in the end, united it.

And, as the spirit of tradition guides millions of people to holiday gatherings this week, Thanksgiving remains that most American of days.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus.  To learn more about American life, and to download MP3 files and transcripts of our programs, go to  And join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.