On Thursday, November 26, we will celebrate Thanksgiving. All things considered, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love the food, the football, and the four-day weekend. What I don’t like is the traffic. In my experience, regardless of which day and what time you travel, you can’t avoid the traffic snarls. You just have to hope (or pray) for the best. (I have found you can mitigate traffic delays by relying on a good GPS, such as Waze.)

Traditionally, TG is a time when extended families gather together to celebrate in large groups. People travel to spend the holiday with relatives that they only see a few times a year. They endure congestion on the roads and long lines and crowds at airports, bus terminals and train stations.

Travel and Leisure Magazine reports that the period from the Wednesday before TG to the following Sunday is typically the busiest travel period of the year, with Wednesday being the single busiest day. Most travelers usually return on Sunday or Monday. Similarly, AAA advises that normally Thursday, Friday or Saturday are the best days to drive. Of course, if you are hosting, you can avoid the traffic, but you have to buy the food, cook and clean up. Pick your poison. You can’t have everything.

According to USA Today over the past weekend (Friday-Sunday) in excess of 1 million persons per day passed through security checkpoints at US airports. Furthermore, Sunday’s total was the highest since the advent of the pandemic in March. Although this total is estimated to be only 42% of last year’s total, it is still cause for concern, particularly since the pandemic has been resurging. According to Johns Hopkins University this past Friday some 195,000 new cases were reported in the US.

AAA has projected that some 50 million Americans will still be travelling for the TG holiday, which, though considerably fewer than in prior years, is still cause for concern healthwise. Clearly, for many people, the desire to see family outweighs the health risks presented by COVID.

This year, due to the pandemic, Thanksgiving will be celebrated differently. Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC’s COVID-19 Incident Manager, issued a statement cautioning “against travel during the Thanksgiving period.” Most medical professionals have also cautioned Americans to limit their traditional travels plans, or, better yet, stay home. They have cited the risks of spreading COVID at crowded airports and on the airplanes, themselves, (although air carriers insist they have taken extra precautions to protect passengers). However, of bigger concern is the risk of family gatherings turning into super-spreaders. Many guests will be visiting from far flung locations without having quarantined, and there is no telling with whom they have been in contact beforehand. On the other hand, many people have developed “COVIT-fatigue” after having been cooped up in their homes for months. Simply put, they want to celebrate the holiday, and they feel they can do so safely despite what the “experts” are recommending.

The CDC has recommended additional safety tips with respect to TG holiday gatherings, for example:

  1. Limit the number of guests.
  2. Restrict guests to those within your “nuclear family” or “bubble.”
  3. Wear masks whenever possible.
  4. Social distance to the extent possible.
  5. If weather permits stay outside
  6. Encourage guests to bring their own food, beverages, and supplies such as utensils and cups.
  7. Use single-use packets for items such as condiments and salad dressings.
  8. Limit guests from entering the kitchen or other areas where food is prepared.
  9. Limit alcohol consumption.
  10. Restrict loud conversation or singing.

In the name of public safety many states have enacted rules, some of which are viewed by many as draconian, restricting the manner in which people may gather to celebrate. Some of us will adhere to these restrictions; others will not.

As we enjoy the holiday, few of us will stop to think of its origins and meaning. What are they? Why is it celebrated at this time of the year? Read on for the answers.

Thanksgiving is a national holiday originally celebrated to give thanks for the year’s harvest. It has strong religious and cultural roots. Most people are aware that Thanksgiving is celebrated in the US (4th Thursday in November) and Canada (2nd Monday in October), but few of us are aware that variations of it are observed in other countries as well. In these other countries the holiday has a different meaning and purpose.

For example, in Grenada it is celebrated on October 25, and it marks the date on which the US invaded the island in 1983 in response to the removal and execution of Grenada’s then Prime Minister, Maurice Bishop. Liberia celebrates the holiday on the first Thursday of November, a tradition that was originated by freed American slaves that were transported there. In the Netherlands a Thanksgiving Day service is held on the morning of the US holiday. Its purpose is to commemorate the traditions of the Pilgrims, who resided in the city of Leiden for several years prior to their emigration to the New World. Japan celebrates a “Labor Thanksgiving Day” on November 23 to commemorate labor and production. It has its roots in the period of American occupation after WWII.

Like many of our customs and traditions, Thanksgiving is rooted in English traditions. These date from the English Reformation in the 16th century and the reign of King Henry VIII. Apparently, the Protestant clergy had determined that events of misfortune or good fortune were attributable to God. Thus, unexpected disasters, such as droughts, floods or plagues, were followed by “Days of Fasting.” On the other hand, fortuitous events, such as a good harvest or the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which actually was largely attributable to storms off the English coast, were to be celebrated by “giving thanks” to Him.

The origin of the Canadian holiday is uncertain, but it is most commonly attributed to the English explorer Martin Frobisher. He had been exploring Northern Canada seeking the infamous and elusive Northwest Passage to Asia. He wanted to give thanks for his party having survived the numerous storms and icebergs it had encountered on the long journey from England. Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated as a statutory holiday in most jurisdictions of Canada.

Most people trace the American Thanksgiving holiday to 1621 in present-day Massachusetts (although some claim that there were earlier celebrations by the Spaniards in present-day Florida circa 1565 and in the colony of Virginia circa 1610). The Pilgrims and Puritans living in MA had enjoyed a bountiful harvest that year and wanted to give thanks. Their harvest had been partly attributable to assistance from Native Americans, so they invited them to share in their celebration. Records indicate that there were 90 Native Americans and 25 colonists in attendance. The actual date is uncertain, but it is believed to have been between September 21 and November 11.

Prior to 1942, Thanksgiving was not celebrated as an official national holiday. Rather, it was celebrated periodically by proclamation. For example, during the Revolutionary War the Continental Congress established days of “prayer, humiliation and thanksgiving” each year. In 1777 George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to celebrate the colonists’ victory at Saratoga. Following independence, various Presidents continued the practice of issuing proclamations periodically.

In 1863 President Lincoln proclaimed a national “Thanksgiving Day” to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. Historians believe that his action was prompted by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer and editor of some renown. (She wrote the popular nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”).

The practice of annual Presidential Proclamations continued until 1939. That year, FDR broke the tradition. November had five Thursdays that year instead of the usual four. FDR figured that if the holiday were celebrated on the 4th Thursday it would provide a much-needed boost to the economy by enabling merchants to sell more goods before Christmas. (Even then, Thanksgiving was the unofficial start of the Christmas holiday shopping season.) Typically, this action precipitated a spat between the GOP and Dems in Congress. GOP congressmen viewed it as an insult to President Lincoln and continued to consider the last Thursday to be the holiday, so there were two Thanksgiving celebrations in 1939, 1940 and 1941, a “Democratic” one on the 4th Thursday and a “Republican” one on the last Thursday. The individual states split the dates (only in America!).

Finally, in 1941 everyone got in sync. On December 26, 1941 FDR signed a bill into law that decreed that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November, a practice that has continued to this day.

Beginning in 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented a live turkey to the President. Over the years it has become customary for the President to grant a “pardon” to the turkey. This year, President Trump is expected to continue the tradition.


Many businesses are closed on Friday as well, which has had the effect of expanding the holiday into a four-day weekend. Similarly, many employees of companies that are open for business on that day take a vacation day or “floating holiday.”

The Friday after the holiday is known as “Black Friday.” It is one of the busiest shopping days of the year and signals the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Many retail stores open early and offer sales. Some even stay open on Thanksgiving. Many shoppers love this and camp out overnight (oblivious to the threats of precipitation or cold weather); others deride it as a “fool’s errand.”

Like everything else Black Friday 2020 will be different.

  1. Some stores will be closed or have limited hours. Best to call ahead or check on-line before you go.
  2. Those that are open will have COVID safety protocols in place, such as requiring masks, limiting the number of shoppers at one time and eliminating the traditional “stampedes.”
  3. Many businesses have encouraged Black Friday shoppers to shop on-line and have expanded BF to include the pre and post-Thanksgiving period. This has the added benefits of convenience and mitigating health risk.

Saturday is known as “Small Business Saturday,” which is an attempt to encourage patronage of small businesses. Some credit card companies have been offering cardholders “points” for patronizing certain small businesses. The Monday after the holiday is known as “Cyber Monday,” which encourages shopping on-line. The Tuesday after is called “Giving Tuesday” to encourage donations to the needy. The holiday is a prime time for charity. Many communities have food and clothing drives to collect items for distribution to the poor. Again, check within your local area to ascertain any modifications for 2020.

Many cities hold parades. The NYC “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” is a longstanding tradition. Many families have attended this event every year for generations. It features celebrities, high school marching bands, and floats with specific themes, such as Broadway shows and cartoon characters. The last float is traditionally one of Santa Claus, which symbolizes the beginning of the Christmas season. Other examples of cities that normally hold parades are Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Plymouth, MA, and Houston. Sometimes, bad weather, such as high winds, puts a damper on the festivities. As I write this the Macy’s 2020 parade is still scheduled, but expect modifications due to COVID.

Many of us watch football on TG. High schools and colleges play traditional games against their chief rivals. The NFL has staged a football game on Thanksgiving Day every year since 1934. At first, there was only one, which was hosted by the Detroit Lions. In recent years there have been three. In 2020 there are no college games scheduled to be played on TG, itself, but some are scheduled to be played over the weekend. In addition, many traditional high games have been cancelled or rescheduled.

So, now that you are “experts” on Thanksgiving, relax and enjoy the holiday. In particular, take a minute to give thanks that through a fortuitous twist of fate, you were born in this country.


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