NYFS logo    tagline
 Pinto Guira making guiramaking a mandalaplaying mandolin

Voices Spring-Summer 2012:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Upstate column Over the River and through the Woods... by Varick A. Chittenden here.
JOIN the New York Folklore Society today to receive Voices.

Voices SS2012


Volume 38

Over the River and Through the Woods...by Varick A. Chittenden

As Stephen Colbert says, “Thanksgiving is a magical time of year when families across the country join together to raise America’s obesity statistics. Personally, I love Thanksgiving traditions: watching football, making pumpkin pie, and saying the magic phrase that sends your aunt storming out of the dining room to sit in her car.”

According to Wikipedia, Thanksgiving, perhaps the most tradition-filled of any American holiday, began this way:
“... the ‘First Thanksgiving’ was celebrated by the Pilgrims (in the fall of 1621) to give thanks to God for guiding them safely to the New World. The first Thanksgiving feast lasted three days, providing enough food for 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. The feast consisted of fish (cod, eels, and bass) and shellfish (clams, lobster, and mussels), wild fowl (ducks, geese, swans, and turkeys), venison, berries and fruit, vegetables (peas, pumpkin, beetroot and possibly, wild or cultivated onion), harvest grains (barley and wheat), and the Three Sisters (beans, dried Indian maize or corn, and squash). The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating ‘thanksgivings’—days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.”

Historians tell us that the first thanksgiving was actually at Berkeley Plantation near Jamestown, Virginia, in 1519, when colonists also were grateful for a great harvest. Others insist it was 50 years earlier, when Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore with nearly a thousand sailors and civilians to a grassy spot on the Matanzas River in north Florida (near the future St. Augustine), to celebrate the first Christian Mass in America. A great meal followed, with thanks to their God.

As a folklorist, I’m often interested in the context of human events. Besides, the what that happened, I want to know about the who, where, when, why, and how. Large celebrations almost always include food. Thanksgiving is the one that’s about food and lots of it!

For many families, traditions are almost set in stone. The family gathers together—you go to Grandma’s house as long as you can (because that is home). Everybody brings food (family members’ specialties). The menu is fixed (turkey with trimmings, mashed and sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, other vegetables (sometimes fresh from someone’s garden), cranberry sauce (homemade vs. canned?), and desserts—pumpkin, pecan, apple, or sweet potato pies. Vegetarians and vegans may have a say in modern menus; some families add familiar ethnic choices, like lasagna or manicotti, kielbasa, collard greens, noodle pudding, falafel, or egg rolls. Eating to excess is a long-standing tradition. It’s a time of license, so a second serving is allowed.

Some have special table linens, china, and crystal (maybe family heirlooms), table decorations, flowers, a seating plan, a children’s table in large families. Someone may say grace; some hold hands; some offer a toast.

Festivals also include a variety of customs and rituals. Since 1924, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been held annually—except during WWII—and, since the days of television, broadcast by NBC. The first parade included animals from the Central Park Zoo; the first large balloon was of Felix the Cat in 1927. Santa Claus arrives on the final float, symbolizing the beginning of the Christmas season. After all, it’s organized by a major retailer! At least a dozen other American cities have big parades now as well.

The National Football League has played the Thanksgiving Classic since the league’s beginning, the Detroit Lions having hosted a game every Thanksgiving since 1934; it’s also a good time for high school games. There are decorations— pumpkins and corn stalks, even humongous inflatable turkeys or Pilgrims; greetings to distant family and friends (cards, phone calls, now emails and Facebook messages); music (hymns like “We Gather Together” and songs by Alvin and the Chipmunks); and entertainment (“Charlie Brown” specials and Miracle on 34th Street on TV). Families have their own customs like going to church, playing touch football, running races, serving food together in soup kitchens, and inviting strangers without families nearby to join them for dinner.

For fun, you can do a little folklore research about your own traditions. Take some time, together, to answer these questions:
  • Where do you go to celebrate Thanksgiving?
  • Who comes? Anybody other than family?
  • Who hosts?
  • When do preparations begin for the dinner?
  • What kind[s] of meat[s] are served?
  • Is the meat fresh or frozen? How much does it weigh? Who selects and buys it?
  • What is the complete menu for the meal?
  • Who prepares which dishes?
  • Who helps in the host’s kitchen?
  • What time of day is the meal served?
  • Are there “assigned” seats? Where do children sit? When is a child eligible to sit with the adults?
  • Are there special dishes used? Glassware? Silverware?
  • Are there traditional serving dishes used for some food items?
  • Are there special table decorations? House decorations? Exterior decorations?
  • Is there a special prayer offered? By whom? How does everyone participate? Is a toast offered? What is served? Who makes the toast?
  • Who cuts the meat? Where?
  • Are there rules for when eating begins? For leaving the table when the meal is finished?
  • Who cleans up? Who washes dishes?
  • What are men’s roles in preparation and cleanup? What do women do after the meal and cleanup? Where? What do men do? Where? Children? Where?
  • What do you do with leftovers? What do you do with the turkey wishbone?
  • What do you eat later in the day?
  • Are there other traditions observed by the family members on Thanksgiving Day? On the rest of Thanksgiving weekend? Church? Traveling? Shopping?
  • What have I left out? Give brief explanations of unusual answers.


Photo of Varick Chittenden
Photo: Martha Cooper
Varick A. Chittenden is professor emeritus of humanities at the State University of New York in Canton and The TAUNY Center project director for Traditional Arts in Upstate New York.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Spring-Summer 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

TO PURCHASE A BACK ISSUE of Voices, visit our online book store.

TO PURCHASE A SINGLE ARTICLE from Voices, use the form below:

Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

To order a single article, please enter volume number, issue (“fall-winter” or “spring-summer”), and title of the article you wish and click on an order button below to purchase through Paypal or with your credit card. We will send you a PDF of the article via e-mail upon receipt of your order.

ITEM #603
Single Article $3.00
Volume No. & Issue

Member Price  $2.00
Volume No. & Issue

NEW YORK FOLKLORE SOCIETY ♦ 129 Jay Street ♦ Schenectady, NY 12305 ♦ 518.346.7008 ♦ Fax 518.346.6617 ♦ nyfs@nyfolklore.org