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Up First briefing: The origins of Thanksgiving traditions — and how they've changed

Two turkeys, named Liberty and Bell, were "pardoned" Monday at the White House ahead of Thanksgiving. Shown here, they're at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington on Monday.
Jacquelyn Martin
Two turkeys, named Liberty and Bell, were "pardoned" Monday at the White House ahead of Thanksgiving. Shown here, they're at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington on Monday.

Good morning. You're reading the Up First newsletter. Subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox, and listen to the Up First podcast for all the news you need to start your day.

Our team break for Thanksgiving. Today, we're bringing you NPR's best coverage on the history of the holiday. Thank you for spending your morning with us! We'll be back Monday.

Thanksgiving traditions, old and new

Thanksgiving festivities kicked off on Monday and included a decades-old tradition: the presidential turkey pardon. President Biden spared Minnesota turkeys Liberty and Bell from adorning someone's dinner table.

But the feathery friends given to the president weren't always meant to be pardoned. The turkey lobby began giving presidents turkeys to eat in 1947. John F. Kennedy broke with tradition in 1963, starting a tradition that's continued to expand.

Let's take a look at how else the holiday has changed throughout American history:

  • The Wampanoag Nation in the first Thanksgiving story is still in Massachusetts today. Author Traci Sorell has advice for how to share Thanksgiving stories that don't erase Indigenous history with kids of any age. (WBUR)
  • We're taught that the first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth, Mass.
  • But historian Rodney Kite Powell argues that 56 years before that day, the first Thanksgiving happened in Florida. (via WUSF)
  • This year is the fourth Thanksgiving with COVID-19. Though the virus doesn't loom as large over most celebrations, there are still some precautions you can take to stay safe. 
  • Though Thanksgiving is traditionally family-focused, many aren't able to or don't want to see their family during this time of year. Friendsgiving parties have become a popular way to connect and celebrate with found family. (via LAist)
  • Familial conflict is an age-old Thanksgiving tradition most want to avoid. When conflict cuts deep, here's how you can handle hard conversations with loved ones. (via KQED)

Setting the table

/ Sophia Pappas for NPR
Sophia Pappas for NPR

If you followed NPR's advice for a perfect, juicy turkey earlier this week, you've likely done plenty of preparation for today's big meal. But there's still time to execute a delicious dinner if you've procrastinated — depending on when you open this email!

  • Food writer Eric Kim has tips for cooking smarter, not harder. Aim for a simplified menu with few ingredients that can all be cooked at the same temperature.
  • Opt out of the turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing and try a meal based on what was eaten at the first Thanksgiving. Think venison, bean stew and hard biscuits. (via WUSF)
  • Don't forget your vegetables. Blogger and cookbook author Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen has veggie-forward recipes that won't break the bank.
  • The food you serve can do more than please the taste buds — it can connect you to your family, too. NPR listeners shared the stories behind their favorite family recipes for a special series called All Things We're Cooking.

Practicing gratitude

Cheerful hand drawn doodle illustration depicting mindfulness concept.
DrAfter123 / Getty Images
Getty Images
Cheerful hand drawn doodle illustration depicting mindfulness concept.

As you reflect on what makes you most thankful today, think about how to take that energy with you in your daily life:

  • Before the first Thanksgiving, local Wampanoags and Indigenous people throughout North America gathered to give thanks 13 times throughout the lunar calendar year.
  • Practicing gratitude has benefits to your mental and physical health. NPR's Life Kit spoke to psychologists to create a guide to get better at cultivating gratitude.
  • It doesn't take much to find something joyful to be thankful for. Start small with what researchers call "micro-acts" that boost wellbeing.

This newsletter was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.