The US Thanksgiving tradition is a bit of a mystery to us Brits. It’s just an excuse to don an elasticated waistband, eat turkey and drink eggnog… right? Wrong! Thanksgiving (26th November this year) is way more than a warm-up for Christmas. Its origins are steeped in history, nearly four centuries worth to be precise. It marks the moment when, in 1621, colonists sat down to break bread with the Wampanoag Indians to pay homage to a great autumn harvest. A whopping 242 years later, the peaceful event became an annual thing and was declared a national holiday. Roosevelt’s bill in 1941 then established the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
If you happen to be Stateside for the festivities this year, it’s worth finding somewhere amazing to celebrate. Here are a few of the best places for joining in with the merriment:
New York City, New York
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a rite of passage for New Yorkers. In fact, it’s been a countrywide institution for nearly 90 years – that’s a whole lot of confetti. These days more than 3.5 million people line the streets of Manhattan and 50 million tune into their TVs to witness quirky floats, humongous balloons and uniformed bands march through the city. The parade boasts 8,000 volunteers, all of whom partake in the 2.5-mile procession.
The nitty gritty: 9am-noon; starting in 77th Street and Central Park West, finishing in Herald Square. This parade is utter madness, there’s no secret uncrowded place to observe it. The key is to stake your claim early, around 6am if not earlier, and consider the west side of Central park West between 60th and 70th Street, these areas tend to be marginally quieter.
Several cities, Dallas included, put on a parade on Thanksgiving Day. But the allure in visiting this southern city in November is its aptly-named Thanks-Giving Square. This three-acre garden, chapel and museum is located downtown and was dedicated in 1976 to promote the ethos of Thanksgiving Day worldwide, all year round. It’s a place of spiritual, religious and cultural significance, away from the freneticism of the parades.
The nitty gritty: The Thanks-Giving Museum and Chapel are open Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-3pm. Thanksgiving Day is undoubtedly one of the square’s busiest days, but visit towards the end of its opening hours and you’ll avoid most of the masses.
The USA is pretty well-known for its quirks – and Thanksgiving Day isn’t short on such unusual traditions. One that’s a particularly big deal in the capital is the Presidential Turkey Pardon, which takes place at the White House every year. It sees a live turkey presented to the President, who issues a formal pardon, or rather, spares it from the dinner table. The privileged poultry is later sent to Turkey Hill Farm at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, where it lives out the rest of its days as a free bird.
The nitty gritty: The ceremony usually takes place the day before Thanksgiving at 2pm EST in the White House Rose Garden. For those who can’t make the pardoning, the spared turkey is temporarily displayed to the public at the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in Alexandria, Virginia, until January.
San Francisco, California
For San Franciscans, Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to get festive. So on the following day (Friday) it hosts the annual Union Square Tree Lighting Ceremony. Once again it’s run by Macy’s and sees the city’s giant tree come to life, adorned with 1,100 shimmering ornaments and illuminated with over 33,000 twinkling lights. Talk about putting our Christmas trees to shame! If that’s not enough, they put on entertainment too – this will see American singer, songwriter and actress Jordin Sparks performing alongside local theatre companies.
The nitty gritty: The ceremony starts around 6pm in Union Square Park, between Sutter and Post and Geary and Stockton Streets. Once again, arrive well in advance to pinch a perfect spot – try the rooftop Cheesecake Factory restaurant, which looks right out over the square.
Hawaii may be far-flung off the US west coast, but it still does turkey dinners and Thanksgiving celebrations with gusto. For starters, there’s the Turkey Trot 10-Mile Run and the Waikiki Holiday Parade – both Oahu mainstays. The latter is to remember the fallen of Pearl Harbor, but is also a chance to give thanks and hosts thousands of spectators – residents and tourists alike. There’s also the food: nearly every self-respecting restaurant on Oahu will be serving up poultry and pumpkin pie – regardless of the warmer climate.
The nitty gritty: Registration for the Turkey Trot Mile kicks off at 6.30am on Thanksgiving Day at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand in Honolulu; the Waikiki Holiday Parade starts at 7pm on Friday 27th November 2015. For a delicious Thanksgiving meal, we recommend Tiki’s Grill & Bar in Waikiki.
As the birthplace of Thanksgiving, visiting Plymouth in November is a must. This historic town has held a special place in America’s heart since the Pilgrims landed the Mayflower there in December 1620. A hub for patriotism at its finest, you can spend a whole weekend celebrating the nation’s past here – from parades, to waterfront walks, to concerts. There’s even a museum that’s open year-round and documents the Pilrgim’s hazardous voyage, their first harsh winter, and the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth.
The nitty gritty: The museum is open every day (including Thanksgiving), 9:30am-4:30pm, until 30 December. Entry is US$8 for adults. Various activities run throughout the day, see www.seeplymouth.com
Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida
Thanksgiving is one of the busiest times of year at Walt Disney World, we’re talking bigger crowds and longer queues. But it’s a good trade-off because the four parks – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios – offer a feast of more than 30 restaurants to choose from, each boasting a range of Thanksgiving lunch and dinner options. Once you’re stuffed silly, head to Epcot’s World Showcase for a touch of history; you can learn how different countries celebrate their heritage here.
The nitty gritty: Walt Disney World is open year-round. Book your Thanksgiving Day tickets well in advance, plan to spread your visit across a week, and it’s worth investing in FastPass+ to beat the crowds.