Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Ritual or Tradition?

Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Ritual or Tradition?

Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Ritual or Tradition?   Thanksgiving in the United States, is it ritual or tradition?  It is definitely both!  Why do human beings decide on certain dates or times to do certain things?  Why do we celebrate?  Of course, it is all about culture; and culture is mostly about unity.

An example of a ritual is a wedding.  A wedding usually requires a recitation of certain words and vows where two people become married to each other.  The ceremony is the ritual, but the celebrations and activities associated with the event varies among cultures. Below is a wedding in India.


The celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday in America is both a ritual and a tradition.  It is a ritual set at a specific time – the fourth Thursday in November every year.  It is a cultural tradition because it has been passed down from generation to generation since the 1600’s.  The names of celebrations have great meaning to the participants, as well as the food served.  This is well understood by both the name of Thanksgiving and the traditional turkey served on a platter.

An anthropology professor gave this challenge to his students:  “Describe American culture, and I will give you $100.00.”  American culture is new in comparison to cultures that have survived for thousands of years. Since we are a nation of immigrants, it is hard to get a handle on what American culture actually entails.

Celebrations Create Cultural Unity

People in the United States are torn between culture and individuality.  We strongly believe every individual is unique and special in his or her own way. However, culture is a product, which forms within groups-not individuals.  Culture’s purpose is to create unity, not individualism. That said, it takes a long time for cultures to be created. Celebrations, rituals and traditions evolve from small beginnings over time.  A few traditional staples, which have evolved rather recently, signify the beginning of the cultural celebration in the United States known as Thanksgiving.

Television, internet, iPads and Smart Phones bring all celebrations into focus.  Perhaps none are more watched than the parades.  Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which began back in the 1920’s, before TV, is an example of immigrants wanting to become assimilated into American culture.  How can one be an individual, yet part of the cultural group?  Macy’s was a big department store, even in the early 20th century; and many employees were immigrants. They believed by putting together a parade, with balloons, floats, and animals to celebrate Thanksgiving, that their immigrant status would be enhanced.  And indeed it was!  Their efforts gave birth to a new American tradition associated with Thanksgiving.  Who has not watched Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade born in New York City, by its many immigrants?

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade celebration

One of the best and well-known participant observations of Thanksgiving is watching football. President Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.  Thirteen years later the first football game played on Thanksgiving was between Yale and Princeton.  Thanksgiving day is now the traditional day for some of the most anticipated NFL (National Football League) games of the year.  Of course immigrants often are confused as to why we call our game football, when it does not involve the foot that often.  Still, it is a shared activity.


Thanksgiving Day in America involves friends and families gathering around lavish turkey feasts with trimmings like mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, ornate vegetable dishes, and homemade pumpkin pie. However, immigrants have added not only parades to our celebrations, but also twists in the traditional foods offered.

Thanksgiving provides a very unique opportunity for everyone to celebrate America, but still keep in touch with our roots.  Different ethnic groups add flare to our turkey table.  For instance, Asians may brine the turkey overnight, or Hispanics may rub chile paste or cumin on the turkey before baking.  African Americans may stuff the bird with Collard greens and cornbread. Thanksgiving tables may look very different in various immigrant settings across America, but still It is a day to celebrate cultural unity.  Unity is created by way of celebrations, bringing families, friends, and visitors together for a shared purpose.

Here is a link of important shared  rituals/traditions/customs from around the world.  Each one is important in establishing ways to enjoy a shared cultural identity.


Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We may have all come here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Sign in to itsallaboutculture.com to share an interesting variation on your own Thanksgiving celebration.  Then Explore More! to learn about unique cultural aspects of your own ancestral heritage.

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