A look back at Thanksgiving traditions through the decades
Here, we’re dishing out a slice of history, uncovering the colorful changes in American Thanksgiving celebrations from the war era to the dawn of the new millennium.
The history of Thankgiving celebrations, from a Pilgrim feast to today’s family festivities
Imagine the first Thanksgiving: a 1621 harvest gathering, where Pilgrims and Native Americans shared a meal in Plymouth.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and we find a holiday that has shape-shifted through the ages. What began as a humble harvest celebration evolved into a national holiday under Abraham Lincoln, becoming a cornerstone of American culture.
With dozens of photos of turkey dinners and holiday celebrations (courtesy of both magazine spreads and advertisements of the era), come along with us to see how American Thanksgiving traditions took shape in the United States through the decades, from the 1940s up until the new millennium.
1940s: Thanksgiving through WW2’s austerity & later recovery
Thanksgiving dinner table in 1940
Vintage 40s Thanksgiving table settings
This place setting even included a couple of cigarettes — and the table lighter was nearby.
1950s: Thanksgiving traditions in the fifties & a post-war celebration
In the 1950s, America was riding a wave of optimism in the post-World War II era. The nation was flourishing, and this sense of renewal and prosperity was reflected in the way Thanksgiving was celebrated.
Kitchens became the heart of the home, buzzing with activity as families prepared for the big day. The Thanksgiving meal was a grand affair, with the turkey taking the spotlight.
This bird, often oven-roasted to golden perfection, was typically surrounded by a host of classic side dishes.
The decade also saw the rise of the green bean casserole, a creamy, crunchy concoction topped with fried onions that quickly became a Thanksgiving staple.
Dessert was no less spectacular, with pumpkin and apple pies reigning supreme. These sweet treats, often homemade and filled with spices, were the perfect ending to the feast. The aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg filled the air, rounding off the meal with a sense of warmth and tradition.
Beyond the culinary delights, the 1950s introduced new Thanksgiving traditions that extended beyond the dining table. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a spectacular display of floats and marching bands, became a staple of the holiday.
Thanks to the growing popularity of television, families across the country could enjoy the parade from the comfort of their living rooms. Watching the giant balloons and performers on TV while the aroma of the turkey wafted from the kitchen became a new kind of ritual for many American families.
Football games, a Thanksgiving Day entertainment staple, continued to be a favorite way to spend the day. Broadcasting these games into homes transformed them into shared celebrations. Families and friends would gather around the TV, sharing in the excitement with cheers, snacks, and playful debates.
This communal viewing, full of energy and camaraderie, became an integral part of the holiday’s charm. The shared experience of watching football, surrounded by loved ones, laughter, and the comfort of familiar traditions, solidified its place as a key element of Thanksgiving celebrations across America.
1960s: Thanksgiving traditions swinging into a time of change
The 1960s, a decade marked by cultural shifts and progressive thinking, brought a fresh breeze to Thanksgiving traditions. The era’s spirit of change and innovation seeped into every aspect of life, including how Americans celebrated this quintessential holiday.
Thanksgiving tables began to reflect the era’s zest for diversity and experimentation. Alongside the traditional roasted turkey, which continued to be the centerpiece, a variety of new and international recipes started making their debut. This culinary exploration led to an infusion of flavors from around the globe, making the Thanksgiving feast a more eclectic and inclusive affair.
In many kitchens, adventurous cooks experimented with new ingredients and techniques, introducing dishes that were a departure from the norm. Jello salads, in a rainbow of colors and filled with everything from fruits to vegetables, became a trendy addition.
These gelatinous creations, often molded into elaborate shapes, added a playful touch to the Thanksgiving spread. Ambrosia, a sweet concoction of fruit, coconut, and marshmallows, also gained popularity.
This dish, with its creamy texture and sweet, fruity flavor, offered a light contrast to the heavier traditional dishes — along with the also-popular molded jello delights.
During the 1960s, even as color television was slowly making its way into American homes, the majority of families still gathered around black-and-white TV sets. This didn’t diminish the charm of Thanksgiving’s favorite spectacles.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a dazzling array of grand floats and spirited performances, remained a beloved ritual. Families across the nation tuned in to watch the giant balloons and festive displays, a tradition that connected them with millions of others.
Football games, another cornerstone of Thanksgiving Day entertainment, continued to capture the excitement of viewers. These games, broadcast into living rooms, turned into communal events, with cheering, shared snacks, and friendly banter.
Even without the vivid colors of modern broadcasts, these black-and-white viewings were filled with enthusiasm and were a key part of the holiday’s joy. The collective experience of watching these events, amidst the laughter and warmth of family gatherings, further cemented them as essential elements of Thanksgiving celebrations in America.
1970s: Groovy Thanksgiving traditions & embracing diversity
The 1970s, a period marked by a heightened awareness of cultural identity and social justice, significantly influenced how Thanksgiving was celebrated — although, of course, most of the holiday traditions were maintained.
The decade saw a delightful diversification of the traditional Thanksgiving menu as Americans began to embrace their varied cultural heritages. Italian families might have served hearty lasagnas alongside the turkey, while Mexican-American households could have included savory tamales as part of their feast.
This blending of culinary traditions reflected America’s rich cultural mosaic, making the Thanksgiving table a vibrant and inclusive display of the nation’s diversity.
Beyond the evolving menu, the 1970s were also a time when Thanksgiving became a platform for reflection and conversation about societal issues.
Amidst the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and environmental activism, these family gatherings often turned into spaces for meaningful dialogue. Discussions around the dinner table delved into the important topics of the day, reflecting the decade’s spirit of activism and consciousness-raising.
Additionally, the 1970s marked a significant shift in home entertainment with the wider adoption of color television. As more families acquired color TVs, the viewing experience of traditional Thanksgiving staples like the Macy’s Parade and football games was enhanced, making these broadcasts more vivid and engaging.
Such technological advancement added a new dimension to the holiday’s enjoyment, aligning with the decade’s general trend towards greater diversity and richness in cultural experiences.
1980s: The age of excess and convenience
The 1980s were a time when Thanksgiving took on the extravagant and convenience-driven spirit of the decade. Imagine Thanksgiving tables not just filled, but overflowing with an array of dishes, some traditional, some new, all reflecting the era’s love for variety and indulgence.
Homes transformed into festive showcases, with decorations that were as bold and colorful as the decade itself.
In the midst of the usual Thanksgiving meal traditions hubbub, the microwave oven became a kitchen superstar, revolutionizing how Thanksgiving meals were prepared. No longer did dishes require hours of slow cooking — now, many could be whipped up in a fraction of the time, leaving more room for enjoying the day’s festivities.
And then the was the rise of home video! With camcorders becoming a household staple, Thanksgiving memories were no longer just stored in photo albums or in the mind’s eye.
Now, they were captured on tape, allowing families to relive these moments year after year. It added a personal documentary twist to the holiday, preserving not just the big moments, but also the small, candid ones.
As the day wound down, a new tradition emerged: blockbuster movie marathons. After the turkey was carved and the pies devoured, families gathered around their TV sets, not just to watch football or parades, but to immerse themselves in the cinematic worlds of the latest Hollywood hits. This added a dash of star-studded entertainment to the Thanksgiving mix, a perfect way to relax and unwind after a day of feasting and celebration.
In essence, the 1980s infused Thanksgiving with a sense of grandeur and convenience, mirroring the broader cultural trends of the time and adding new dimensions to the holiday’s traditions.
1990s: American Thanksgiving traditions embraced nostalgia while putting a new spin on it all
As the 1990s rolled in, Thanksgiving took a cozy turn down memory lane. It was like America collectively decided to throw a throwback party every fourth Thursday of November. Kitchens buzzed with a mix of nostalgia and innovation, as classic recipes from yesteryears made a grand comeback, often with a gourmet twist.
Think of your grandma’s recipes but with a Martha Stewart flair — elegant table settings, a dash of sophistication in home cooking, and an overall ambiance that whispered classy yet homey.
And oh, technology! The internet arrived like the cool new kid on the block, opening up a world of recipes and party ideas right at your fingertips. Suddenly, you had countless ways to roast a turkey or craft the perfect centerpiece just a click away.
But some things never change, right? The Macy’s Parade with its giant balloons and the thrill of football games were still the mainstays, the untouchable traditions. Except now, thanks to the magic of VCRs, you could record them and replay the fun anytime – a perfect solution for those who wanted to juggle cooking with catching every float and touchdown.
Let us not forget special Thanksgiving episodes of America’s favorite TV sitcoms, like Friends and Seinfeld:
And then there were TV movies, like this forgotten gem “Thanksgiving Day” that starred Mary Tyler Moore and Tony Curtis:
The 90s, in essence, blended the old with the new, creating a Thanksgiving vibe that was as comforting as it was forward-looking.
Thanksgiving Day traditions today: A blend of past and present
Today, Thanksgiving is a beautiful blend of past and present. While we’ve adopted new technologies and trends, the nostalgia of the 20th-century celebrations still informs our traditions and menus.
From the classic turkey and stuffing to innovative dishes, the spirit of Thanksgiving continues to be a time for family, gratitude, and, of course, delicious food — just as it was more than 100 years ago.
In today’s whirlwind digital era, Thanksgiving stands as a cherished pause button. It’s a day for gathering with loved ones, a moment to celebrate the rich, diverse threads of American life that have come together over the years.
Amidst all the changes and tech advancements, Thanksgiving harks back to something timeless – the simple joy of sharing a meal and making memories around the table with family and friends. It’s a tradition that, no matter the decade, holds its charm and continues to bring us together, year after year.