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The insider's guide to Thanksgiving

By Justin Gest for CNN
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(CNN) -- As Americans around the world celebrate Thanksgiving, we help you navigate the holiday that revolves around food, television and shopping.

How did it all get started?

Thanksgiving began as an extension of the Harvest Festival, which was held to celebrate the end of the regional harvest in the English and Wampanoag Native American traditions. The first American thanksgiving took place in the Virginia Colony on December 4, 1619, and the tradition would continue after the pilgrims' first harvest with their Native American neighbors in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

When did an English and native tradition become so "American?"

The holiday was proclaimed official by the first U.S. President, George Washington, in 1789, with a Congressional resolution establishing the first national Thanksgiving Day. The reason given was "to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

During the mid-19th Century, states in the southeastern region of the U.S. criticized the holiday as a relic of Puritanical bigotry. However, by 1858, 25 states approved motions proclaiming official days of thanksgiving, and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday in 1863.

If it's about the harvest, why do I only ever hear about American football games?

Over the years, the fourth Thursday in November has dragged into the fourth Friday as well to the extent that most businesses, including all government agencies simply turn Thanksgiving into a four-day weekend. This leaves Americans with a lot of time to kill.

On Thursday, about the only things open in the neighborhood will be the local liquor store and your living room. Needless to say, in the interest of wholesome family time, living room television is usually the better option for entertainment -- and the National Football League has taken full advantage. Every year, the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys play games on Thanksgiving Day (but never against each other) to very high ratings from an American public desperate to watch anything other than re-runs of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York or the "I Love Lucy" marathon.

What are the holiday's other indulgences?

In a word: Food. The traditional meal has evolved over the years to accommodate low-carb, low-fat, low-consumption, and low-discipline diets. But they are usually a spin off of a feast revolving around a roast turkey. Garnishes for the meat usually include a savory bread stuffing and cranberry sauce. Yams are a must, and families often serve a sweet potato pie with marshmallows instead. Some green vegetable is often present as well. It can vary from sophisticated, steamed asparagus on the Eastern seaboard, to fried okra in the South, to some kind of trendy seaweed in California. And everything is finished off with a big pumpkin pie (preferably la mode.)

To work off Thanksgiving dinner, the Friday after Thanksgiving is known as The Biggest Shopping Day of the Year. (You were expecting Exercise Day?) Retail stores re-open and jockey to attract the millions of people enjoying their day off with "blow-out" sales and early Christmas specials. This time is so important for U.S. retailers that during the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt tried to move Thanksgiving Day back a week to supply consumers with more shopping time before Christmas.

What if you're a frugal vegetarian?

This might not be your holiday. But over the last few decades, the U.S. National Turkey Federation has presented the president with two live turkeys and two cooked birds. The live ones are "pardoned" by the Chief Executive and retire to some pastural asylum. Over the past three years, the public has been given the opportunity to select the two turkeys' names. Vegetarians will be glad to know that Americans still managed to associate the absolved omnivores with food. Last year, they were dubbed "Marshmallow" and "Yam."

So if I get invited to a Thanksgiving feast, what do I do?

  • Do show interest by asking questions about the origin of the holiday.
  • Don't expect anyone to have any good answers.
  • Do engage grandpa in a discussion about what it means to be an American.
  • Don't be surprised if he says something that makes you question the spirit of tolerance and intercultural bonding that is supposed to pervade the season.
  • Do chat up the family about the big football matches this week.
  • Don't anticipate the remotest mention of Chelsea or Manchester United.
  • Do offer your friends a glass of mulled wine.
  • Don't be surprised if it gets grandma a little tipsy, touchy, and talkative about her days as a Sigma Nu girl in college.
  • Do enjoy your meal.
  • Don't even think about eating too much. There is simply no such thing.

  • story.turkey.jpg

    Thanksgiving meals normally involve roast turkey.

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