Celebrating Thanksgiving Traditions

Pumpkins and gourds
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CHARLOTTE – Every year on the 4th Thursday in November, we commemorate the day in 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans gathered to share an autumn harvest feast.  

Thanksgiving tablescape
Thanksgiving tablescape

Unlike the lavish Thanksgiving feasts that grace many tables today, the very first Thanksgiving dinner was likely a meager affair that lacked many of the dishes we’ve come to associate with a traditional Thanksgiving meal.  Instead of turkey, the pilgrims of 1621 most likely dined on goose, duck, swan or passenger pigeon stuffed with onions, herbs or nuts instead of the bread-based stuffing we commonly eat today.  The three-day meal probably included a variety of seafood like eel, lobster, clam, and mussels, but colonists did not have butter or wheat flour, so there would have been no pumpkin pie.  White potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cranberries had yet to make their way to North America, so there were no mashed potatoes, candied yams or cranberry sauce.

The food may have changed, but nearly 400 years later, the core of Thanksgiving remains the same: gathering around a table to enjoy a feast with family and friends.  “Cook for three days straight!” says JoyMarie Ruela when asked about her Thanksgiving plans this year.  “Go to the parade the morning of. Have a house full of family and friends. Eat too much. Drink too much. Laugh uncontrollably. Nap. Eat again. Watch the game. Play cards!”

Thanksgiving gatherings looked different for many families last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the Delta variant still widely circulating this year, it continues to impact people’s plans.  Some people are putting off gathering as a group again this year to protect high-risk family members.  “My whole extended family usually gets together for a big lunch, but because of COVID, we didn’t last year and probably won’t this year,” says Megan Morgan.  “We all meet in Morven. Some come from Boone, others from Florida. There are at least 30 of us Morgans running around!  This year we will probably just have dinner with our neighbors, but I really hope we will do it again one day.”

Others wonder if their traditions will survive the pandemic.  “Prior to COVID, my family and I would go to the movies,” says Lacy Toney.  “We would usually try to see something light and funny. Or maybe even a Christmas movie that just came out.”  Although many movie theaters are open again, for Toney, the experience just isn’t the same these days: movie options and showtimes are far more limited, and simultaneously streaming releases means it’s far easier and cheaper to watch a new release at home.

Leach's family's candle tradition extends back into the 1990s
Leach’s family’s candle tradition extends back into the 1990s

Others may not see family this year, but they’re still prioritizing tradition.  “Prior to COVID, my large family of up to 75 would get together for Thanksgiving,” says Stacy Leach.  “At every family gathering, we light three candles before we pray and eat together.  The first candle is for family members that are living but are not present at the gathering. The second candle is for our family members that are serving in the military and all those serving our country for the freedom to celebrate the holiday. The third is for our family members who have passed away but are not forgotten. We then count off to see how many family members are there and say a prayer.”

“This has become such a tradition that we have continued to light these three candles at every funeral and every wedding ceremony in our family since the tradition was started,” continues Leach. “Thanksgiving is the holiday where I believe this tradition was started. It is the holiday that makes me always think of the three candles the most.”  The last time Leach was able to gather with her family for Thanksgiving was in 2019.  “We will not be getting together this Thanksgiving as a large group,” she says, “but individual families will get together and we will still light the candles in our homes.”

Some people get active before the big meal with a "Turkey Trot."
Some people get active before the big meal with a “Turkey Trot.”

For some people, Thanksgiving is all about the food, but others prefer to get moving!  After a “virtual” Turkey Trot in 2020, the Charlotte Turkey Trot is back this year and committed to a live experience on Thanksgiving morning.  A family tradition in Charlotte for 32 years, the race starts and ends at South Park Mall and features more than 9000 runners annually.  Ronald Tomlinson puts a different spin on the Turkey Trot, kicking off Thanksgiving morning with a round of golf.

Shern Saunders' granddaughters Ruby and Daisy decorating the tree
Shern Saunders’ granddaughters Ruby and Daisy decorating the tree

For others, Thanksgiving kicks off the Christmas season.  “After we have our typical traditional Thanksgiving dinner, we retire to the living room, and my two granddaughters – now 6 and 7 – excitedly decorate my Christmas tree!” says Shern Saunders.  “The day after, we drive up to the Wilkesboro area and do the “Choose and Cut” Christmas tree so we know it’s fresh,” says Andrew Hamilton.  “The whole family goes, and each piece of the family picks out a tree for their house. We get pictures with Santa, drink hot cocoa, buy a fresh-cut tree, and have a family day in the mountains.”

Andrew Hamilton's family choosing a Christmas tree
Andrew Hamilton’s family choosing a Christmas tree

Others pay it forward on Thanksgiving, focusing on service to others.  One common way to serve others on Thanksgiving is donating Thanksgiving meal staples to an organization like Servant’s Heart or Charlotte Rescue Mission to provide for families in need.  “I started a tradition of having my kids take homemade cookies to the fire station to say ‘thanks’ for all that our firefighters do,” says Diane Yarborough. “We started this when they were very young, and we still do it! Kids are now 14 and 9. They loved cutting out and decorating the fire truck cookies and making a trip to see the big trucks!”

Big Guy's "Turkey Pizza"
Big Guy’s “Turkey Pizza”

Even local businesses have important Thanksgiving traditions!  Every day after Thanksgiving, Big Guy’s Pizza offers “Turkey Pizza.”  “We actually start selling them before Thanksgiving,” says Owner Janet Muller.  “It is a taste of Thanksgiving in every bite: gravy instead of sauce, dollops of mashed potatoes, dressing, corn and turkey.”

Others scoff in the face of tradition, always looking to bring in something new!  “I started adding a family interactive game into our traditions. One year it was Family Feud,  and Thanksgiving-themed Pictionary and Charades ,” says Anita Jamison.  “To make it interesting we have Team Blood (family) and Team Outlaws (married into the family). I also have one different dish each year – the best was when we had ‘Porksgiving,’ and instead of turkey we had extra thick grilled pork chops. Always have a surprise in store for a family Thanksgiving get-together!”

Whether you’re eating a traditional turkey dinner or changing it up with ‘Porksgiving,” traveling to see family or staying home, running a 5K or taking zonking out on the couch, we wish all of our readers a very happy Thanksgiving!

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Mary Beth Foster
Mary Beth Foster works part time as an essay specialist at Charlotte Latin School and full time as a mom to her eight-year-old daughter Hannah and her six-year-old son Henry. Prior to having children, she worked as a high school English teacher for nine years. Most recently, she chaired the English department at Queen's Grant High School. She and her husband have lived in Mint Hill with their children and their cats since 2011. Email: marybeth@minthilltimes.com