The international student’s guide to Thanksgiving in the USA

By Paige Lyman• Last updated: Nov 8, 2023
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There are plenty of national holidays around the world that you may not be familiar with! One of the bigger holidays here in the United States that takes place in late November is Thanksgiving. 

Considered a national holiday, Thanksgiving sees college students across the country getting a long weekend and typically spending time with family and friends. But what exactly is Thanksgiving?

Immediate imagery you might think of is turkeys, a ton of food, and packed airports considering Thanksgiving weekend is one of the busiest times in the US. But there’s some history behind the holiday as well that you, as an international student, might be curious about. In this short breakdown, I’ll pull together some of the basic history, the controversy the holiday faces, and some traditions that are often done for the holiday.

History of Thanksgiving

The history of Thanksgiving starts in England, as opposed to the US. In 1620, a group of colonists left from Plymouth, England to head for Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They were primarily looking for a place to practice their own religious beliefs and were drawn in by the freedom that was seemingly promised across the Atlantic. 

Once arriving in Cape Cod, the colonists faced a very harsh first winter. Different diseases ran through the group and only half of the original group remained by spring. Eventually the colonists were approached by a Native American named Squanto who came from the Pawtuxet tribe.

Squanto taught the colonists to plant and cultivate corn, how to catch fish, avoid poisonous plants in the landscape, and other useful survival skills they would need. He also helped to broker a peace with the local Wampanoag tribe; a peace which lasted for 50 years. In November 1621, the colonists held a rather large feast that lasted about three days to celebrate a successful corn harvest.

This feast became known as the first Thanksgiving. From there, more Thanksgivings were held in the years that followed until 1789 when the United States’ first president, George Washington issued the first official Thanksgiving that was recognized by the US government.

From there, the holiday has become widely celebrated across the US. Since it’s a national holiday, many businesses and all schools take long weekends to celebrate Thanksgiving. So you’ll most likely have a long weekend to look forward to when Thanksgiving rolls around!

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There are quite a few traditions that are associated with Thanksgiving. While there were religious ties in very early celebrations, most of the religious ties have disappeared. Thanksgiving tends to center much more on spending time with family and friends with a large meal to round out the day. Different foods you might see at an American Thanksgiving include mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, stuffing, and turkey. There’s really no record of turkey being served at the first Thanksgiving, but it’s become a staple nonetheless and has become quite the symbol for the holiday.

Another tradition that has become popular over the past 100 years includes Thanksgiving Day parades. The most well known is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that started in 1924. This parade runs down a 2.5 mile route in New York City and is broadcast live on TV every year. It’s a pretty common sight to see on family TV’s on Thanksgiving morning! 

One final tradition to take a look at is the pardoning of turkeys. No joke, this is a real Thanksgiving tradition. Started in the mid-1900s, the president of the US has always pardoned one or two turkeys each year. This essentially means that they won’t be eaten as part of a Thanksgiving meal and they get into “retirement” on a farm.

Criticism of the Holiday

While Thanksgiving is celebrated throughout the US, the history of the holiday and the first Thanksgiving does have its fair share of criticism as well. Native Americans and others, particularly historians and scholars, have criticized the rather watered down version of the story that is taught in schools and how the holiday tends to wash over a long history of bloodshed between Native Americans and European settlers. 

To show their criticism of the holiday, Native Americans have gathered on the day of Thanksgiving at the top of Cole’s Hill (which is just above Plymouth Rock) to hold a National Day of Mourning. This gathering has occurred since 1970 with similar gatherings taking place across the country. According to the United American Indians of New England, it is “a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”

Thanksgiving has a long history and has evolved into a well-known holiday in the United States. Though it’s not the first time that people have set aside a specific day to give thanks in the country’s history, it has grown into a nationally recognized day. Hopefully this short history can help you better understand the autumn holiday during your international studies in the USA!

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Guest Author | Study Abroad Expert

Paige Lyman is a freelance writer and journalist who writes in the pop-culture space. With a wealth of experience in stu...Read More

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