Thanksgiving meal universal, large, but not diverse

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: November 19, 2002

Guess who's coming to Thanksgiving dinner?

The typical American this year will sit down to a turkey- or ham-centered feast with an average of about 13 other people, almost all of whom are related to each other, according to a poll of 1,001 adult Americans conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

The poll found that Thanksgiving Day is the most universally celebrated holiday in the United States: 90 percent of all adults plan to mark the fourth Thursday of November with a special meal.

In contrast, about 80 percent of the nation plans to put up a Christmas tree this year.

"Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday regardless of what your race or religion is," said Barbara Rainey, author of the new historical book "Thanksgiving: A Time to Remember."

"It gives us a greater appreciation for what we have been given. We so often think of the holiday as a time of food, family and football. Those things are all very important. But we can forget why we celebrate this day," Rainey said.

The Pilgrim settlers were celebrating survival in the New World wilderness in 1621 when they decided to host a three-day feast with the Wampanoag Indians sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11.

The original feast was a celebration of friendship that overcame racial and cultural diversities between two peoples, a tradition that has continued. The poll found that 65 percent of modern Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving dinner, at least once, with someone of a different race, while 54 percent have shared the holiday with a stranger or with someone they didn't know very well.

But the poll also found that Americans do not regularly invite people different from themselves to the Thanksgiving table. Most Americans plan to celebrate this year with their relatives.

The first Thanksgiving may not have been much different, even though it was attended by 50 English settlers and more than 90 Native Americans.

"There were dinners scattered here and there at various settlers' homes rather than the popular myth that a large number of people sat together at long tables. And it is likely that the English congregated together and the Indians would have done the same," said Kathleen Curtin, historian at the Plimoth Plantation museum near Boston.

"Thanksgiving still has a national communal aspect to it today, even if today it might primarily be families that gather. This is our only nationally proscribed feast, after all," Curtin said.

Whether there is diversity at the Thanksgiving dinner table this year is largely a function of an individual's own family structure and lifestyle, the poll found.

About 35 percent of people who are unmarried and have no children will celebrate Thanksgiving with people to whom they are not related, compared to only 22 percent of married adults with children. Only about one in six elderly people will sit down with non-family members, compared to one in every three of America's young adults.

Diversity at the Thanksgiving table occurs most often among residents of large cities, especially in Northeastern and West Coast states. It occurs least often among residents in rural areas or in small cities located in the South or Midwest.

The poll was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from Oct. 13-28 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The poll has an overall 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey. The margin of error on how elderly people will celebrate Thanksgiving, for example, is 10 percentage points.

Further results of the poll may be found at