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Turkey Day

9 questions about Thanksgiving you were too embarrassed to ask

The holiday that’s like Christmas, but not.

TODAY IS THANKSGIVING in the USA. If you’re online or reading international news at all, you’ll be seeing a LOT of people talking about turkeys, flights and pumpkin pie.

But for most people in Ireland, Thanksgiving is a holiday we only know about through special episodes of Friends. So what’s it actually all about?

Here, we answer all your questions about the holiday that’s like Christmas but not.

Why does it exist?

For hundreds if not thousands of years, many cultures have celebrated some kind of autumn thanksgiving festival to mark a successful harvest season. But Thanksgiving as we know it - celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the US, and the second Monday of October in Canada – is usually traced back to a 1621 celebration by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, to mark their first successful harvest as colonists in the US.

That's why people dress up in Pilgrim outfits, like this. Awkwardfamilyphotos Awkwardfamilyphotos

The first national Thanksgiving was designated in 1777, when George Washington decreed it to celebrate American military success in the country’s war of independence against Britain.

As such, the holiday is associated with US national identity – but also with colonialism. It has been criticised as a celebration of the land grab and genocide by white settlers against the Native Americans. Some Native Americans have held a Day of Mourning on the same day.

What are people giving thanks for?

At first, it was for a good harvest, or for political or military victory, or some other manifestation of American success. Now, many families have a tradition of asking each person around the dinner table to give thanks for something in their life.

This can be awkward.

Awkwardfamilyphotos Awkwardfamilyphotos

Those with religious affiliations often give thanks to their deity – often Christian, but the festival has also been celebrated in Muslim and Sikh communities among others.

So people eat turkey, right? Is it like Christmas dinner?

Buxtrosion Buxtrosion

Sort of. Because of its roots in the Pilgrim harvest, traditional Thanksgiving foods are mostly those native to the Americas. Your typical menu is something like:

  • Turkey and stuffing
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Sweetcorn
  • Pumpkin pie

“But turkey and potatoes and cranberry sauce?” you say. “That IS Christmas dinner.” Well, sorry. They’re all American foods and we stole the idea from them.

What about those other weird foods I’ve heard about?

Candied yams mathplourde mathplourde

Like sweet potatoes with marshmallow on top? Yes, they’re really a thing. ‘Candied yams’, as they’re more catchily known, are often a feature of Thanksgiving dinner. (And are not as bad as you’d think.)

There are also a host of other traditional concoctions, including frog eye salad – a pasta salad with tinned pineapple, tinned mandarins, coconut and marshmallows – and Snickers salad, which is Snickers bars, apples and cream in a bowl. Basically, a masterpiece in the redefinition of the word ‘salad’.

Do people give presents?

Sort of. It’s not traditional to give gifts to family and friends like Christmas, but if you’re invited to someone’s house for dinner you’re probably expected to turn up with something for them.

Aaaand… the parade with the giant inflatables in New York?

Spiderman and Uncle Sam getting intimate, in an unintended scene from the 2012 parade Imgur Imgur

Yeah, that. Every year the department store chain Macy’s puts on a giant three-hour Thanksgiving parade through New York, which is on national television. It traditionally features giant inflatable figures referring to American icons and that year’s pop culture trends.

This year’s parade is going to include Paddington Bear, Pikachu, and the red Power Ranger.

What other traditions are there?

Awkwardfamilyphotos Awkwardfamilyphotos

Basically, pretty much everyone gets the Thursday and Friday off work. So lots of people go home to their families – it’s bigger than Christmas for many people in the US – and do the things that we might associate with December 25.

Like eating too much, drinking too much, having family arguments and falling asleep in front of the telly.

There’s also a LOT of sport on TV – mainly American football, but also basketball, ice hockey and, um, punkin chunkin.

There’s also shopping, right?

Associated Press / YouTube

Yep. The day after Thanksgiving is known among retail workers – and now among everyone – as Black Friday. Because that’s when the sales start, and thousands of people lose the run of themselves.

It’s traditionally regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Many shops open early in the morning, and some even open their doors the previous evening (from 9pm on Thanksgiving itself).

Basically, that’s when you’ll see the videos emerging of people having fist-fights over flat screen TVs. And headlines like this.

HuffPo HuffPo

And… the turkey pardoning?

AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The US president pardons at least one and sometimes two turkeys every year. This was introduced as a tradition by George HW Bush in 1989, two years after the first presidential pardon was issued to a turkey by Ronald Reagan in 1987.

The lucky turkeys are generally sent to a visitor centre somewhere. However, due to being “bred to be much larger than a normal turkey”, they rarely survive for long – according to this New York Times article, only one of the turkeys pardoned by Barack Obama has lived to see the next Thanksgiving.

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