The American Holiday of Thanksgiving looms large on the November calendar. Here’s a history lesson, recipe book, and tradition primer rolled into one, mama!
While November might just be the month between Halloween and Christmas for much of the world, the American holiday of Thanksgiving – which occurs on the fourth Thursday in November – looms large on the calendar for anyone who loves to eat. Known for traditional foods like turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie (more on those below), Thanksgiving commemorates a peaceful celebration of gratitude for the harvest that occurred between Native Americans and some of the earliest colonial settlers, known as the Pilgrims, in Plymouth, Massachusetts back in 1621.
Having grown up in Massachusetts about 30 minutes from the site of the first Thanksgiving, its history and traditions were drummed into me from an early age. Of course, Thanksgiving is a holiday that all Americans celebrate, and at its best is a wonderful day to come together with family and friends to think about gratitude. It’s far less materialistic than Christmas, and lacks the sugar-high schlockiness of holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween.
During a recent chat with some of my non-American colleagues, it came to light that they knew very little about the holiday other than that it’s a big meal where we stuff ourselves (even more than usual). (By the way, if you can’t be bothered to pay an obscene price for frozen turkey or do a potluck with friends, a few places in Singapore do serve up traditional Thanksgiving dinner on the day itself. My top picks would be the American Club, Brewerkz, and Luke’s — whose chef is a fellow New Englander so he really knows his stuff!).
So if you’ve ever wondered what the deal is with this most American of holidays, you can find everything you need to know in our handy A to Z Thanksgiving guide below, from the most traditional foods to turkey pardons at the White House…
A is for Apple Pie. Now of course, Pumpkin Pie is the #1 Thanksgiving dessert – so spicy, so creamy! – but the true Thanksgiving table spread should really offer a variety of dessert options. Pecan Pie is another personal favourite.
B is for Black Friday, the increasingly ridiculous shopping day that comes after Thanksgiving and officially kicks off the Christmas season (I say ridiculous because each year sales seem to start earlier and earlier – like, 2am or something – and violence erupts all over the place). Since the holiday always falls on the fourth Thursday of the month, the following Friday is also a holiday, making for a pretty sweet long weekend.
C is for cranberry sauce. Despite being a tiny state with almost no agriculture, Massachusetts is America’s second leading producer of cranberries (in fact cranberry juice behemoth Ocean Spray is headquartered nearby to Plymouth), so of course this is a traditional Thanksgiving side dish. Turkey feels naked and dry without it, in my opinion!
D is for dinner rolls. I know carbs are evil and everything, but bread as a given on any restaurant table is one of the American things I miss most living in Singapore. Dinner rolls – warm, flaky, buttery – are ideal for sopping up excess gravy and cranberry sauce, or even for making mini sandwiches with turkey and stuffing!
E is for episodes of Friends. Lots of American TV shows do Halloween and Christmas episodes, but Friends (which aired on Thursdays) was known for having particularly great Thanksgiving episodes over the course of its 10-season run. This is a pretty spot-on ranking of all 10 episodes; though my personal faves were the one where Joey wore fat pants and the one where Brad Pitt (who was married to Jennifer Aniston at the time) guest-starred as a geek-turned-hottie that she’d once tormented.
F is for Football (American football, that is!), which is played during the fall season. Many high schools have their big rivalry game on Thanksgiving morning, and of course lots of families have friendly games or toss the ball around in the afternoon or following a big lunch. Two pro NFL teams, the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, always host games on Thanksgiving. The football game on TV is basically your background soundtrack when preparing Thanksgiving dinner.
G is for gratitude. The origin mythology of Thanksgiving puts a gloss on an overall tragic story about colonization and epidemic, while in the present day the holidays can represent gluttony (in terms of too much food) and greed (Black Friday). And yet, it’s the one day of the year when we can get together with family – or friends – to reflect on how blessed we truly are. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that reflecting on gratitude has shown to have myriad benefits both for adults and for kids!
H is for holiday travel nightmares. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day in America, and since it’s winter in most of the country, flight delays and brutal traffic are fairly common.
I is for Indian Pudding. This is another traditional New England dessert that’s comprised of corn meal, milk, and molasses all boiled together. I love this quote from a story about the dish (which has its own national holiday in November):
“It’s sweet, it’s sugary, it’s good. But, it looks like crap.”
Indian Pudding can be hard to find, but if you’re curious to see what it tastes like, here’s a recipe so you can have a go yourself. The ingredients are refreshingly simple!
J is for jello. Thankfully, savoury jello salads (so gross!) probably had their heyday between the 1950s and 1970s, however you’re still quite likely to find a jello mold of one kind or another on many an American Thanksgiving table. To be honest, cranberry jello salad isn’t that bad!
K is for kitchen. This is the ground zero for any Thanksgiving celebration, and if you’re lucky yours will be filled with lots of yummy smells (and busy hands) from morning till evening.
L is for lunch, which is generally when Thanksgiving dinner is actually served. Most families sit down to feast around 3 or 4pm. This could be because it’s such a massive meal that we need to start gorging early. It could be because the days are short in November and it’s nice to eat while it’s still light outside. Or perhaps it’s because this timing conveniently falls between the day and evening football games!
M is for Mayflower. This was the ship that the Pilgrims sailed on from England to Plymouth Colony in 1620, where they spent their first cold New England winter. You can normally visit a replica Mayflower ship in Plymouth, although she’s currently undergoing repairs in anticipation of a 400-year celebration coming up in 2020. In the U.S. it’s kind of a thing to claim to be a “Mayflower descendant” because it means your family was among the first non-native settlers.
N is for New York City. This is where the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade takes place – it’s the oldest parade in America and the biggest parade in the world. It’s kind of a Thanksgiving tradition to wake up on Thursday morning to watch the giant floats and balloons bop along down Central Park toward Macy’s department store. The parade always ends with an appearance by Santa Claus, harkening the official start of the Christmas season.
O is for Over the River and Through the Woods. The world is overrun with Christmas songs, but this is an actual Thanksgiving song that debuted in the 19th century as a poem. Along with tracing our hands on construction paper to make “hand turkeys,” singing this song is among my strongest memories of celebrating Thanksgiving in preschool and kindergarten.
P is for Plymouth. This is the modern day city about an hour from Boston that began as a colony for religious outcasts from England, known as the Pilgrims. Settled in 1620, it was among the first permanent colonial settlements in America (which didn’t become the United States until 1776), and therefore looms large in American historical lore. Anyone who grew up in Massachusetts as I did surely took multiple field trips to Plimoth Plantation, a sort of living museum where actors go about daily life as the Pilgrims and Native Americans did in the 17th century – whether churning butter, wearing itchy wool clothes and buckle hats, or slaughtering animals!
Runners up: Pilgrims and Pumpkin Pie (the best Thanksgiving dessert)
Q is for quince, a slightly tart, pear-like fruit that makes for lots of yummy fall recipes. It’s versatile enough to function as a dessert on its own (poached quince), or even makes for an unconventional turkey glaze. Check out this collection of recipes from America’s domestic doyenne, Martha Stewart, for more ideas!
R is for Running. Besides football games and the Macy’s Day Parade, fun runs (often called “Turkey Trots“) are another Thanksgiving morning tradition in towns across America. Frequently used as fundraisers and a way to generate food bank donations, 5k fun runs are a great way to get the whole fam moving in anticipation of LOTS of eating later in the day! Happily, this tradition has even spread to Singapore, where the American Association sponsors an annual Turkey Trot the weekend before Thanksgiving.
S is for Squanto. He was the Native American who peacefully approached the Pilgrims and showed them how to plant and cultivate crops so as to make it through the brutal New England winter. Serving as an interpreter and sort of a diplomat, he helped to organise the first Thanksgiving feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe.
T is for Turkey. These large fowl are native to New England and according to legend were the main course at the first Thanksgiving feast. Turkey is traditionally served roasted, although in the South fried turkey is quite a thing (it’s also notorious for starting fires), and in other parts of the country Tur-Duck-En (chicken, wrapped in duck, wrapped in turkey) is also quite popular. Turkey leftovers are a big thing after Thanksgiving; I remember eating turkey sandwiches for days, and my mom always made turkey soup the weekend after the holiday.
U is for uncles (and aunts, and cousins, and grandparents…). Perhaps even more than Christmas, Thanksgiving is the holiday where you’re most likely to get together with all of your family (the more people, the more dishes you can have on the Thanksgiving table!). Every family has that one special recipe that gets passed down through generations which everyone looks forward to. If for some reason you can’t be with your family on Thanksgiving (say, you live on the other side of the world), Friendsgiving is a nice substitute, and it’s a fun way to bring together a mishmash of different dishes (whole cranberry sauce with almonds and orange zest is my go-to).
V is for Vose, Horace Vose, that is. He was a poultry farmer who sent turkeys to U.S. presidents from the 1870s all the way up to his death in 1913. What do turkeys have to do with U.S. presidents, you ask? In another quirky American tradition, the president “pardons” a turkey each year in a bit of a silly publicity stunt, with the lucky bird (and a backup alternate) spared the table and sent to live out their days on some bucolic farm. There’s a great West Wing episode about this peculiar practice.
W is for Wampanoag. This is the Native American tribe that befriended – and essentially saved – the Pilgrims in an alliance that also assured mutual protection from another neighboring tribe. The sachem (chief) of the Wampanoags, Massasoit, negotiated a peace treaty with the Pilgrims in 1621, and he was the main driver behind organizing the first Thanksgiving feast to celebrate the harvest. Descendants of the Wampanoag tribe still live in Plymouth and surrounding areas; you can learn more about the tribe and its way of life when visiting Plimoth Plantation.
X is for X-ray machines, the bane of any traveler’s existence during this super hectic travel week. The promise of a rad Thanksgiving dinner is just about the only thing that makes dealing with American airports worthwhile.
Y is for Yams, preferably candied. Sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows are yet another tasty side dish on the Thanksgiving table.
Z is for Zzzzzzzs, which you’re sure to get following a massive Thanksgiving dinner. While turkey does contain tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes sleep, it’s a myth that turkey is more likely to make you drowsy, as most meats actually contain tryptophan. All that said, there’s nothing wrong with a good old fashioned food coma – in my mind there’s nothing better than eating a big Thanksgiving dinner, taking a bracing post-meal walk, then passing out on the couch to the dulcet tones of a football games. America at its finest!