A Brief History of Unusual Thanksgiving Traditions


If you’re like a lot of people, when you think of a holiday like Thanksgiving, you picture something timeless – something that’s always been exactly the way it is now. However, you’d also be wrong. Thanksgiving has been around almost 400 years at this point. It only stands to reason that it’s undergone more than a few changes over that span of time.

In fact, there are points in time when you might have had trouble recognizing the Thanksgiving you know and love so much today. Here we’ll take a closer look at Thanksgiving, explore some of the odder ways people have celebrated over the years, and discuss how other nations celebrate as well.

How Has Thanksgiving Changed in Recent Years?


If you’ve been around a few decades, then the chances are really good that you can already see a few ways Thanksgiving has changed drastically even since you were a kid. The following are just a few of the ways Thanksgiving isn’t the same holiday it was even 20 or 30 years ago.

 Stores Are OpenLeaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg

open-sign.jpgStores used to be completely closed on Thanksgiving Day. Now shopping-centric events like Black Friday are such a big part of how people like to celebrate the holiday that they officially start on the holiday itself. With so much demand out there, stores would be crazy not to cash in on a golden opportunity to gain a major selling day during the busiest shopping weekend of the year.

Naturally, someone needs to be there to wait on all those customers and provide the services they’re after. This means Thanksgiving is quickly becoming just another work day for those in the retail and service industries. It may not be long before the rest of society follows suit.

Leaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg  Healthier Meals

Although most of us are at least somewhat health-conscious these days, millennials are even more so. Now that they’re growing older, having families of their own, and hosting their own Thanksgiving dinners more often than not, we’re seeing preferences change as far as what hits the table once it’s dinner time.

Younger people are more likely to host a vegan or vegetarian Thanksgiving that doesn’t even make mention of the traditional turkey that was considered a staple for years. They’re saying “no thank you” to the cranberry sauce, the rich side dishes, and the calorie-rich desserts. Lots of younger people are choosing to switch up menus in other ways as well, opting for alternative main dishes and sides that are the very furthest things from traditional.

Leaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg  Political Correctness

People are becoming more socially conscious as well these days. That said, the traditional Thanksgiving pageants complete with smiling, waving Pilgrims and Native Americans are now a point of controversy for many people.

These days, schools are more likely to approach Thanksgiving from multiple points of view in the interest of cultural sensitivity. Common approaches include addressing what Native Americans think of the European immigrants. Other schools are choosing to do what was so recently done with Christmas – take it out of the equation altogether.

So, yes, Thanksgiving is changing and evolving right before our very eyes, with some traditions falling away and others – like festive parades – enduring.


A Look at Defunct Thanksgiving Traditions from Yesteryear


Thanksgiving has changed even more over the years in the grand scheme of things. Sure, you can still remember the days when Thanksgiving meant none of the stores were open and you could count on a turkey being served at every table. However, it’s a lot less likely that you’re aware of the following ways turkey day is no longer celebrated.

Leaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg  Patriotic Turkeys

When you think of what Thanksgiving is truly about, you instantly think of gratitude, as well as the many ways that gratitude can be expressed. You think of getting together with loved ones and celebrating how fortunate you are in your lives together with a bountiful feast complete with all the trimmings. You most likely don’t think of patriotism.

However, if you’d been alive and celebrating Thanksgiving in the 18th through the early 20th centuries, that’s exactly what Thanksgiving would have meant to you. Household decorations like patriotic turkeys flanked by American flags would have been very familiar sights to you.


No one is quite sure where this tradition originally started, although several theories abound. Some feel it began when Benjamin Franklin himself stated that the turkey was a better fit than the bald eagle as far as being the symbol of the nation goes. (He felt turkeys were far nobler and more respectable.) This notion would later be repeatedly reinforced by many writings throughout the 18th century.

The idea of the turkey as a symbol of America itself would only continue to become more common when early 20th century writers would continue to describe the turkey as the bird that dies for its country every Thanksgiving Day.

Leaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg  Thanksgiving Greeting Cards

Even though snail mail is definitely on its way out thanks to cheaper, faster, more convenient media like email or texting, many of us still consider greeting cards to be musts when it comes to certain holidays. After all, what would Christmas be without a display that shows off all of the cards your family received that year? What would a birthday be without a birthday card from your closest friend or favorite family member?

Although the idea of sending a greeting card on Thanksgiving sounds odd at best, it used to be a really important part of Thanksgiving tradition. Back in the 19th century, greeting cards for Thanksgiving were so popular and essential, they even saw trends come and go.


One popular theme for Thanksgiving cards involved huge, fattened turkeys pulling carriages and carts filled with small, smiling children. Other cards depicted children or babies riding turkeys. Still more bore the likeness of one of the patriotic turkeys mentioned above.

As far as the tone of the cards, the jokes and witty remarks that are common on greeting cards today were nowhere to be found. It was all about sincerity and seriousness as a way to honor the original spirit and courage of the early Puritans.

Naturally we still see the remains of traditions like these in the Thanksgivings of today. For instance, the turkey is still very much considered the unofficial mascot of Thanksgiving, although his attachments to Independence Day-style patriotism have long been forgotten.

How Do Other Countries Around the World Celebrate Thanksgiving?


Even if we no longer see Thanksgiving as a second annual reason to break out the red, white, and blue, we do tend to think of it as a holiday that’s every bit as American as apple pie. However, the truth is many nations all over the world celebrate Thanksgiving in one form or another. The dates, origin stories, and customs are just a bit different.


Leaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg  Germany

Like our own Thanksgiving, Germany’s Erntedankfest is a festival that originated as a way to celebrate another year’s bountiful harvest and give thanks for continued good fortune. In rural communities, celebrations really do revolve around the actual fruits of the harvest. However, more urban areas celebrate with special church services or city-wide festivals.

As with our own Thanksgiving, parades are common occurrences. It’s also very common for families to roast fowl for dinner. It’s not all about turkey, though. People are even more likely to roast fattened chickens, hens, capons, geese, or ducks.

Leaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg  Canada

Americans with Canadian friends may already be aware of how similar that country’s celebrations are to our own. Both American and Canadian Thanksgiving have their origins in the harvest festivals of Europe. Canadian Thanksgiving also became a national holiday in the 19th century just like its American component. However, the day itself commemorates the safe travels of explorer Martin Frobisher’s fleet back in the 16th century.

Canadians also celebrate very similarly to Americans. They hold bountiful feasts featuring staples that would be very familiar to us, including but not limited to roast turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, and pumpkin pie. It’s also common practice for people to take long weekends or vacations from work, attend parades, and visit family.

Leaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg  Japan

Kinro Kansha no Hi is a national holiday whose name translates to “Labor Thanksgiving Day.” It is celebrated each year on November 23rd and, although derived from harvest festival rituals of the ancients, is more about celebrating and honoring concepts like community involvement, diligence, and hard work.

Japanese Thanksgiving is a relatively new holiday, having only been established in 1948. It first began as a way to acknowledge and celebrate post-World War II Japanese workers, as well as their strength and tenacity. Common ways to celebrate include festivities led by various labor organizations. It’s also common for children to present public servants like police officers with gifts, artwork, or crafts.

Leaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg  The Netherlands

Many people are unaware that not everyone on the Mayflower was an English settler. For some of the pilgrims, England was merely a pit stop on their way to America. Those pilgrims were from the Netherlands. It’s said that their influence can be seen in certain elements of American life as we know it today, including but not limited to ladder-back chairs, civil marriages, and more.

The Dutch still commemorate and honor the settlers that were originally from the Netherlands with their own version of Thanksgiving. Celebrations include special church services and special foods that are enjoyed. You won’t see a turkey or a big, steaming bowl of mashed potatoes on a Dutch Thanksgiving table, though. It’s all about cookies and coffee for them, preferably enjoyed after church.

These are just a handful of the many nations around the world that celebrate some form of Thanksgiving. Others include but absolutely are not limited to Norfolk Island, Liberia, and Grenada.


The Thanksgiving Table: Origins and Evolution


These days it goes almost without saying that, for most of us, American Thanksgiving celebrations are really all about the food. However, even the traditional Thanksgiving table hasn’t always been constant. Here’s a look at how things have evolved over the years.

Leaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg  The First Thanksgiving

Sketch-of-Pilgrims.pngMany people assume that we must eat turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie every November because it’s what the pilgrims ate. In actuality, that’s not the case at all. While it’s true that the English colonists and the native Wampanoag did get together to break bread, the meal they shared wouldn’t have looked much like ours.

There would have been wildfowl on the table, although it may or may not have included turkey. Ducks, swans, geese, pigeons, and even cranes or eagles are just as likely. There also would have been venison and an abundance of seafood, as that was an absolute dietary staple in that region at that time. It’s even a possibility that seal was part of the menu!

It is also unlikely that potatoes or sweet potatoes would have been served, as those items had yet to rise in popularity as food sources among the English. However, other root vegetables like carrots or turnips were very likely part of the feast, as were squash, beans, corn, cranberries, blueberries, and plums.

Leaves-Blowing-in-Wind.jpeg  Why Do We Eat the Menu We Do?

fall-decorations-with-pumpkin-and-indian-corn.jpgAs touched on above, the turkey became strongly associated with Thanksgiving due to multiple associations with patriotism over the years. However, its place on the Thanksgiving table as the centerpiece really took hold when influential writer Sarah Josepha Hale included it as part of her vision of the ideal Thanksgiving in her novel Northwood. Hale would also list items like pickles, custards, cake, pie, cheese, and various vegetables.

Stuffing is part of the menu because the practice of stuffing roasting birds with bread and seasonings has a long history going all the way back to the days of the ancient Romans. However, potatoes entered the lexicon because of how popular they were in general and how attached people became at one point to the idea of eating potatoes at every meal.

Other staples – like cranberries, pumpkin, squash, and corn – are popular choices for Thanksgiving because they are Northeastern crops that tend to be in season around Thanksgiving time, meaning they can and should have a place on a table celebrating the seasonal harvest. They are also most likely to have been present on the first Thanksgiving table back in the 1620s.



At this point, Thanksgiving has been going strong for almost four centuries, so it only makes sense that it’s seen its share of changes over the years. It’s also likely to see quite a few more in the years to come. How else do you think Thanksgiving is changing? What do you think will be different about the way we celebrate in 10, 20, 50, or 100 years?