Can you guess what pilgrims, turkeys and football have in common? Correct – they all belong to one of the most popular holidays in the USA: Thanksgiving. No other day in the year, with the exception of Christmas, is so important for the family. Festive dinners and football matches on TV are as well a part of this holiday as spectacular parades, and of course, traffic jams on US highway.

In this article, you will learn all about this true American fest and its traditions. We will also cover the opening times on Thanksgiving and give you some idea of what to do on this special date.

Thanksgiving – Meaning and History

The history of Thanksgiving is fairly complex. On the one hand, this celebration resembles European harvest fests that were, and still are, commonly held in autumn. On the other hand, Thanksgiving is a holiday that could only have originated in the USA and goes back to the 17th century when Pilgrims and Puritans were settling North America.

Starting out in the New World, both groups were facing hard times. To thank God for his support during these times, they held a celebration – together with the Native Americans that had helped them in their first year.

As we all now, New England’s colonies later became the founding states of the USA. Who celebrated the first Thanksgiving and where, is still a matter of debate, though. Some historians name Plymouth, others Massachusetts, and others Virginia. To make matters even more complicated, there were Catholic thanksgiving fests that the Spanish settlers had brought with them to America.

Thanksgiving was soon celebrated all over the country – even more so when the USA became independent from Britain. The fact that this was a religious holiday did not bother the founding fathers, by the way. Even George Washington, not an ardent worshipper by any means, urged his countrymen to “give prayers and thanks to God the Almighty”. Thanksgiving turned out to be a holiday that everybody could celebrate – just the right “glue” to hold the young republic together.

In 1863, another famous US President, Abraham Lincoln, set the official date of Thanksgiving to the last Thursday in November – no surprise, as this date had become widespread already. In 1941, it was slightly changed, but more on that later…

Thanksgiving – Traditions and Ceremonies

First and foremost, Thanksgiving is a family holiday that is celebrated at home. Since its start, many customs and traditions have crystallized, and now form an integral part of this day:

Thanksgiving Dinner

A true highlight of Thanksgiving Day is the festive dinner – an occasion for the whole extended family to come together.

At the center of the decorated table sits a roasted turkey filled with stuffing: breadcrumbs, onions, celery, spices… almost every family in the USA has their own recipe, often passed down for generations. Side dishes include potatoes, yams, cranberries and corn – typical ingredients of the first settlers. Another beloved Thanksgiving food is pumpkin, either as soup or sweet cake for dessert.

Fun Fact: Statistics show that Americans consume more food on Thanksgiving than on any other day. Thus, if you are invited to a Thanksgiving dinner, you better skip lunch.

As a guest, you might also be asked to pull on the wishbone of the turkey with another person. If the bone breaks in half and you happen to hold the bigger piece, you can make a wish.

Thanksgiving Turkey Pardoning

Maybe you have seen the US president on TV receiving a turkey for Thanksgiving. Unlike its many brethren, though, this bird is lucky. Since John F. Kennedy, it has been custom for presidents to “pardon” the turkey, who will then spend the rest of its life on a farm or in a petting zoo.

This last happened in 2020, when President Donald Trump granted a 40 pound gobbler named “Corn” the official pardon. Thus, this fortunate turkey was spared the oven.

Thanksgiving – Football

For many Americans, football is as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and pumpkin pie – since the 19th century, mind you. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the NFL schedules some of their most important games on Thanksgiving weekend. If you want, you can watch three games live on TV. In addition, many families enjoy throwing the “Pigskin” around in their backyard for a friendly family match.

Thanksgiving – Parades

In addition to family gatherings, Thanksgiving is also celebrated with spectacular public parades. Macy´s Thanksgiving Parade, the biggest of these, takes place in New York and is famous for its festively decorated wagons. There is an over-sized turkey, a marching band and Santa Claus – a reminder that Christmastime is around the corner. You can also watch this parade in Florida as it stops at Orlando’s Universal Studios every year.

Black Friday, the Day after Thanksgiving

The Friday after Thanksgiving marks one of the most important shopping events in the USA: Black Friday. Then, shops make use of the circumstance that not only federal employees, but also students and many other workers get this day off.

Discounts of up to 70 % can be had on that day, and many shopping centers operate with longer opening hours. The typical Black Friday rush, however, is not for the faint of heart, as the following video shows.

Thanksgiving – Date

Since 1941, Thanksgiving has officially been celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Now you might ask: Why did the USA not stick to the last Thursday of this month?

The answer has to do with the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1933, November had five Thursdays, so Thanksgiving naturally fell on the 30th. Since most Americans were accustomed to doing their Christmas shopping after this holiday, business owners feared for their profit. Choosing the fourth Thursday in November, on the other hand, made sure that Thanksgiving wood take place no later than November 28.

Here are some dates of past and following years:

  • Thanksgiving 2021: November 25
  • Thanksgiving 2022: November 24
  • Thanksgiving 2023: November 23
  • Thanksgiving 2024: November 28
  • Thanksgiving 2025: November 27

Thanksgiving – Opening Hours

Thanksgiving is a federal holiday. This means that it is celebrated in all states of the USA. Federal employees are paid for this day, government institutions like post offices are closed and the stock exchange takes a break – as do banks.

Many businesses give their employees leave, not only on Thursday, but the entire Thanksgiving weekend. The same applies to schools. Thus, it should come as no surprise that highways across the country get fairly crowded around that time.

As a visitor, you should also keep in mind that restaurants and shops are either closed on Thanksgiving or operate with shorter hours – a rarity in the USA. If you want to go shopping, you should therefore wait for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

Of course, you can use public transport during this holiday. Most bus and train lines follow their Sunday schedule.

Thanksgiving FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions

What is Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving originated from religious harvest fests, but is now a mostly secular holiday celebrated by all ethnicities in the USA. In addition to dinners with the whole family, it is also accompanied by football games and parades.

Why do Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving goes back to the first settlers of New England, who celebrated their survival in America with a religious fest. Still today, many ingredients that were harvested by these settlers are part of the Thanksgiving dinner: for instance, turkey, yams, pumpkin and corn.

When is Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Depending on the year, it takes place between November 22 und 28. The following day is called Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping events of the year.

What is closed on Thanksgiving?

On Thanksgiving, public life in the USA mostly comes to a halt: Offices, banks, shops and restaurants are closed, while public transport operates with limited timetables.

Do other countries have Thanksgiving, too?

In addition to the USA, there are other countries that celebrate Thanksgiving fests – but in slightly different form and on other days. In Canada, for example, Thanksgiving takes place in October, and Australians celebrate their Thanksgiving on the last Wednesday in November.