10 Thanksgiving Traditions across America

Many of us assume everyone enjoys the same Thanksgiving traditions across America as we do, but that’s not exactly true.

There are many Thanksgiving traditions that are so popular that they’ve become synonymous with the holiday itself.

However, no two American households are alike, so no two American households share the same Thanksgiving traditions. 

Some households believe canned cranberry sauce is a Thanksgiving staple, whereas other households would think Thanksgiving was ruined if fresh cranberries weren’t used to make the cranberry relish. 

Whether you are a Thanksgiving purist or are looking for new Thanksgiving traditions, you’ve come to the right place. 

Read on to discover if your household’s Thanksgiving traditions are unique or common. 

#1 Eating Traditional Feasts

By far, the most popular Thanksgiving tradition is the feast: A large turkey centerpiece with sides such as stuffing (or dressing depending on what region you live in), mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

However, this isn’t what appears on every American table on Thanksgiving.

Here are some unique Thanksgiving food traditions from Best Life Now:

  • In Maine and other New England states, lobster is considered a must-have on Thanksgiving.
  • If you spend Thanksgiving in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you may be served a chile-rubbed turkey or pumpkin empanadas.
  • In Hawaii, luaus are often held on Thanksgiving Day, and the traditional Thanksgiving turkey is usually swapped for a main dish of kalua pig.¹

Similarly, Thanksgiving side dishes also vary widely by region. 

Mashed potatoes are the most popular side dish in 10 states, but mac and cheese is the most popular side dish in the Southeast, and side salads are the most popular in Maine.² 

#2 Volunteering

One of the popular Thanksgiving traditions for families is volunteering.

Many families or religious groups volunteer at soup kitchens helping to pass out Thanksgiving meals to those in need.

Others volunteer with organizations such as Mobile Meals to deliver Thanksgiving meals to the homebound.

#3 Watching Parades

Thanksgiving traditions

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade has taken place since 1924 (back then, it included circus animals). 

Since then, it has been one of America’s most beloved Thanksgiving traditions. 

It has taken place every year, except for 3 years during World War II. It took place during the pandemic, but without the usual crowds.

According to Scholastic, the parade brings in about 50 million television viewers and typically has 3.5 million on-site spectators.³

#4 Pardoning a Turkey

Thanksgiving traditions

According to The History Channel, “Beginning in the mid-20th century and perhaps even earlier, the president of the United States has ‘pardoned’ one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year, sparing the birds from slaughter and sending them to a farm for retirement. A number of U.S. governors also perform the annual turkey pardoning ritual.”⁴

These pardoning ceremonies are often attended by the public and televised. 

#5 Cheering on Their Favorite Team

Thanksgiving traditions

Harvard and Yale played a game on Thanksgiving Day 1876 (just 3 years after it was officially declared a national holiday).

After this game, it became a tradition to have rivals play against one another on this holiday.

Once the NFL was founded in 1920, they began hosting Thanksgiving football games.⁵

Last year, Thanksgiving’s game between Washington and Dallas was the most watched National Football League (NFL) broadcast of the 2020 season with 30.3 million viewers.⁶

While football and Thanksgiving seem to go hand in hand, Alaska residents actually prefer basketball with their turkey.

According to Best Life Online, “The Great Alaska Shootout is a college basketball tournament held on Thanksgiving in Anchorage every year. Fans flock to Anchorage or tune in on TV in order to get their sports fix, since they don’t have a professional football team to cheer for.”⁷

#6 Traveling to See Family and Friends

Thanksgiving traditions

While the pandemic upended many of the Thanksgiving traditions, such as crowded parades, people still traveled to see friends and family, making Thanksgiving week one of the busiest travel weeks of the year.

TSA reported nearly 5 million travelers over Thanksgiving week 2020 – when there were travel warnings.⁸

The trend will continue this year. 

According to Guesty, “Thanksgiving weekend 2021 reservation volume is up 302% compared to last year.”⁹

[Related Read: 10 Fun Thanksgiving Facts and Trivia to Entertain Guests]

#7 Breaking a Wishbone

Thanksgiving traditions

The wishbone is a part of a turkey’s chest bone. 

After eating Thanksgiving turkey, some families participate in a tradition of breaking the wishbone.

Two people hold the wishbone on either side and pull it apart while making a wish.

Whoever ends up with the larger part of the wishbone will have their wish come true (according to the superstition). 

#8 Participating in a Turkey Trot

Thanksgiving traditions

The first turkey trot (or 8K race) took place in Buffalo, New York, on Thanksgiving Day in 1896.¹⁰

Today, Thanksgiving is now the most popular day for races in America,¹¹ “drawing nearly a million participants to more than 1,000 different events across the country.”¹²

#9 Celebrating Friendsgiving

Thanksgiving traditions

More and more people are embracing Friendsgiving as one of their Thanksgiving traditions. 

Axios reports that “more than half a million people have been invited to a Friendsgiving party” in 2019.¹³

Merriam-Webster explains, “Friendsgiving is a mashup of the word ‘friend’ and ‘thanksgiving’ that refers to a large meal among friends eaten during the Thanksgiving season. The level of formality is dependent on the participants, but the word first appeared around 2007 as an informal replacement for the holiday typically spent with family.”¹⁴

It may be becoming the most popular Thanksgiving tradition for younger generations.

According to the New York Post, “Seven in 10 young Americans prefer ‘Friendsgiving’ over a traditional Thanksgiving. […] A poll of 2,000 Americans – aged 18–38 – found 68 percent say celebrating Friendsgiving is their preferred method of engaging in the autumnal celebration.”¹⁵

#10 Getting Ready for Christmas

Thanksgiving traditions

Thanksgiving is also when Americans officially welcome Christmas.

For example, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade traditionally ends with Santa Claus making his first appearance of the holiday season.

Some families begin decorating for Christmas on Thanksgiving. 

Christmas shopping is also associated with Thanksgiving, specifically Black Friday (the next day).

However, since 2011, some stores have pushed Christmas shopping to begin on Thanksgiving Day rather than Black Friday.

As a result, Christmas shopping has now become one of the more common Thanksgiving traditions in America with folks eating turkey for lunch and then heading to Macy’s to shop that evening. 

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  1. https://bestlifeonline.com/american-thanksgiving/
  2. https://www.fatherly.com/news/this-map-shows-the-most-popular-thanksgiving-sides-in-every-state/
  3. https://www.scholastic.com/parents/family-life/parent-child/macys-thanksgiving-day-parade-trivia.html
  4. https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving
  5. https://www.history.com/news/why-do-americans-watch-football-on-thanksgiving
  6. https://www.sportspromedia.com/news/nfl-tv-ratings-thanksgiving-dallas-cowboys-washington-football-team/
  7. https://bestlifeonline.com/american-thanksgiving/
  8. https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/2020/11/23/thanksgiving-travel-millions-pass-through-airports-despite-covid-19/6387694002/
  9. https://www.guesty.com/short-term-rentals-holiday-season-guide-2021/
  10. https://www.outsideonline.com/health/running/best-turkey-trots-america/
  11. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/11/20/18102863/turkey-trots-thanksgiving-race
  12. https://www.runnersworld.com/races-places/a20862856/how-the-turkey-trot-became-the-most-popular-race-in-america/)
  13. https://www.axios.com/friendsgiving-increase-popularity-changes-society-409bbfe6-8506-4ddc-a71a-60403f59075f.html
  14. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/friendsgiving-meaning
  15. https://nypost.com/2019/11/18/most-young-people-enjoy-friendsgiving-more-than-thanksgiving/
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