Thanksgiving Traditions Across America

Americana, History
on November 23, 2014
Thanksgiving Traditions

It’s Thanksgiving morning in America. In Lewiston, Maine, a young mom and her 4-year-old daughter are in the kitchen, basting the turkey and peeling two-dozen potatoes for mashing. In Fort Smith, Ark., seven cousins sit cozily watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, with hours of football to follow. In Rockville, Md., runners are gathered near the starting line for the annual 5K Turkey Trot.

There are common threads—food, family and gratitude—in the many ways we observe this distinctly American holiday across the country. But some communities have carved out their own way of celebrating. Here are several towns that would have made the pilgrims proud.

Plymouth, Mass.

The birthplace of Thanksgiving celebrates the famous first feast the weekend before the holiday, drawing an estimated 175,000 visitors to the annual America’s Hometown Thanksgiving festival. Pilgrims, Native Americans, soldiers, patriots, and pioneers climb out of history books and onto the streets; parade floats depict milestones in American history, such as the Mayflower landing and passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Thanksgiving Traditions

For event director Olly deMacedo, 55, whose family immigrated to the United States from Cape Verde (an island off the coast of western Africa) when he was a boy, it’s a chance to tell the American story.“I have lived that story,” he says. “Going to the United States, it felt like we were going to heaven, almost.”

DeMacedo quotes a Pilgrim, saying, “‘One small candle will light a thousand’—America is that candle. Having people choose their leaders, that’s a total- ly radical idea. It’s changed the world! And it started right here in Plymouth.”

Aitkin, Minn.

Instead of heading to big-city malls on “Black Friday,” the citizens of tiny Aitkin, Minn., don parkas and line the town’s lovely old Main Street, sipping hot chocolate—waiting, with thousands of visitors from surround- ing forested and lake-strewn rural counties, for the ice-fishing houses to roll by.

For the uninitiated, here’s how ice fishing works: Build smallish structure. Tow onto fro- zen lake. Cut hole in floor. Drill into ice. Fish.
“Some are rustic,” Amanda MacDonald, 44, says of the ice fishing structures. MacDonald owns a local coffee shop and directs the area chamber of commerce. “Some have kitchens and a TV.”

On Thanksgiving Day, says MacDonald, families decorate their “floats”— fancied-up fish houses on trailers and truck beds—in preparation for Friday’s Aitkin Fish House Parade. It’s a way to keep residents in town on America’s biggest shopping day, to browse at local stores and slurp hot soup at Aitkin eateries. “It’s about coming together for some- thing creative,” she says, “and loyalty to the community.”

Donaldsonville, La.

Thanksgiving Traditions

Chef John Folse

The Thanksgivings of Chef John Folse’s boyhood echo with accordion and fiddle music, crackling cooking fires and a tableful of extended family. Late fall delivered a rich hunter’s harvest from the “swamp floor pantry”—venison, wild turkey, ducks—to the holiday feast. Even more important was the next day’s meal: gumbo made from leftover turkey.

Everyone in the family, even the kids, had a role to play: preparing turkey stock; chopping celery and onions; stirring the dark brown roux; slicing wood-smoked Andouille. That Cajun-Creole tradition of team-cooked hunting camp dishes, a tradition Folse, 68, calls “minding the black-iron pot,” lives on in his family.

“My nephews and nieces are learning those traditions from us,” he says. “I can’t imagine the day after Thanksgiving without a turkey gumbo with potato salad on the rim.”

El Paso, Texas

We all know the story of Plymouth Rock. But some West Texans claim Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate and his expedition celebrated the first Thanksgiving near El Paso on April 30, 1598. Crossing the Mexican desert, mad with hunger and thirst, set- tlers spotted the Rio Grande and knew they were saved. Oñate ordered a day of giving thanks—including Mass, a feast, and a theatrical play—and claimed the surrounding lands for King Philip II of Spain.

Since 1989, El Paso residents have been commemorating the occasion with a reenactment and festival. It started when Sheldon Hall, a retired businessman, began studying the area’s beautiful but crumbling missions and learned Oñate’s story. Hall’s grand- daughter Jackie Reed, 34, who visited the old missions with him as a girl, has run the event since her grandfather’s death.

“It’s not only in his honor. It’s about history and culture,” she says, “and shining a light on another page in the American story.”

Estes Park, Colo.

Every year on Thanksgiving Day, a packed church gym in Estes Park, Colo., echoes with laughter and live music. Volun- teer “pilgrims” seat hungry guests and heap plates with steam- ing, home-cooked goodness as the Estes Park Thanksgiving Community Feast gets underway.
It began in 2000 as a free Thanksgiving meal for a few dozen people with no family in town. Steve Misch, 69, and co-founder Larraine Darling, 61, expect to serve more than 600 at the event this Thanksgiving, while also transporting meals to shut-ins around town.

Residents and visitors to Estes Park, a small community near Rocky Mountain National Park, pitch in with cooking, baking and cleanup, while some people generously write checks for the cause.

Departing diners paper the “Wall of Thanks” with messages of gratitude. “We take time to share our moments of thankful- ness, and stress the appreciation of community, of family, of giving back,” says Misch.

Found in: Americana, History