Thanksgiving in France: Do the French Celebrate it too?

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Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November (25 November in 2021). Thanksgiving is undoubtedly the most celebrated day in the United States and perhaps the most important dinner of the year. It is a holiday that celebrates close family and friends and the autumn harvest. At the heart of this holiday is a deep sense of gratitude. As the name implies, it is a day for giving thanks (rendre grâce). Do the French celebrate Thanksgiving? If so, what are the traditions of observing Thanksgiving in France?

What is the origin of Thanksgiving?

Historically, Thanksgiving is a harvest festival. In Europe, it was a ceremony held in mid-August to celebrate the end of the harvest (Fête des Moissons). During this holiday, farmers thanked God with prayers and merrymaking.

Thanksgiving arrangement with pumpkin and pear. Photo TasiPas via Envato Elements

Thanksgiving rustic holiday arrangement with pumpkin, oak, pear, fall leaves and berry. Photo TasiPas via Envato Elements

The Pilgrim Fathers and the first Thanksgiving

In 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers disembarked from the Mayflower in Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts. There they founded the Plymouth Colony.

However, the beginning of colonisation was difficult. The first winter is devastating. Of the one hundred and ten pilgrims, only fifty survive the cold and lack of food.

The survivors were saved by the intervention of two natives named Squanto and Samoset. With the help of their tribe, the Wampanoags, they offered them food and taught them to fish, hunt and grow corn.

The first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 to celebrate the first harvest of the fall. Governor William Bradford decreed three days of thanksgiving. The settlers invited the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, and 91 of his men to share a meal with them in thanks for their help.

Depiction of the First Thanksgiving. Artist: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (ca. 1912)

Depiction of the First Thanksgiving. Artist: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (ca. 1912)

The Pilgrim Fathers held an even larger thanksgiving celebration in 1623. That year, an unexpected rainfall allowed for a greater harvest.

On June 29, 1671, Charlestown held the first Thanksgiving to be decreed by a public administration.

From George Washington to the present day

October 1777 is a date that Americans remember fondly. It was the first time that the 13 colonies came together to celebrate Thanksgiving on the occasion of their victory over the British at Saratoga.

On October 3, 1789, George Washington declared the first Thanksgiving Day for the nation. The President proclaimed Thanksgiving again in 1795.

George Washington October 3 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

George Washington’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation (3 October 1789)

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, on the last Thursday in November 1863.

However, in 1939, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt changed the date to the fourth Thursday in November.

Throughout the United States, Thanksgiving Day is a day of celebration. It is a time for families to gather around a big meal.

In New York, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is one of the highlights of the year.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City is the largest parade in the world. It is organised and presented on Thanksgiving Day by the US-based department stores’ chain Macy’s.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo Nodar via Twenty20

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo Nodar via Twenty20

Its first edition took place in 1924, making it the second oldest Thanksgiving Day parade in the United States, along with America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit. The parade lasts three hours, from 9 am to 12 pm. The floats wind their ways through the streets of Manhattan. The parade ends in front of Macy’s Herald Square. It includes many floats, and fifteen balloons representing pop-culture characters.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo irenanna_sowinska via Twenty20

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo irenanna_sowinska via Twenty20

The Turkey at Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo backfromthefuture via Twenty20

The Turkey at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo backfromthefuture via Twenty20

Santa Claus at Macy's Parade © tweber1 - licence [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Santa Claus at Macy’s Parade © tweber1 – licence [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Americans can follow the parade from home as it is broadcast on NBC.

A day for giving and charity

This time of year is a time for giving and charity. Many meals are served to the homeless by anonymous people as well as celebrities. Associations distribute millions of frozen turkeys to disadvantaged families.

Many religious services take place on this day. They take the opportunity to give thanks for the blessings received throughout the year.

Thanksgiving in France. Photo: twenty20photos via Envato Elements

Thanksgiving. Photo: twenty20photos via Envato Elements

Thanksgiving’s Dinner

On this day, all American families come together for a large, traditional family meal at home. This big meal is also offered to American soldiers based abroad.

Thanksgiving Day around the table. Photo choreograph via Envato Elements

Thanksgiving Day around the table. Photo choreograph via Envato Elements

Turkey Day: une histoire de Dinde!

Many Americans eat turkey on this day. Thanksgiving is, therefore “The Turkey Day”!

Delicious stuffed Turkey in the centre of the table. Photo Anna_Om via Envato Elements

Delicious stuffed Turkey in the centre of the table. Photo Anna_Om via Envato Elements

The turkey is the queen of the party and the main dish. Americans stuff it with chestnuts, apples, or sausages. It is usually served with mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes or a squash gratin. Green beans and corn are also on the menu, as is cranberry sauce.

The presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey

Since the middle of the 20th century, the President of the United States has made a practice of “pardoning” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year, thus allowing these birds to escape the slaughter.

Thanksgiving in France. Photo: twenty20photos via Envato Elements

The turkey is free! Photo: twenty20photos via Envato Elements

The Pumpkin Pie

The traditional American Thanksgiving dessert is Pumpkin Pie (tarte au potiron) which closes the meal.

American Pumpkin Pie Thanksgiving Day. Photo Timolina via Envato Elements

American Pumpkin Pie Thanksgiving Day. Photo Timolina via Envato Elements

However, in some families, the Pecan Pie replaces the Pumpkin Pie in Georgia. And Sweet potato Pie takes pride of place on North Carolina tables.


Thanksgiving in France?

Asking whether we celebrate Thanksgiving in France is a bit like asking whether we celebrate Bastille Day in the United States!

Among the autumn celebrations, Halloween is the one that comes directly from the United States and is slowly but surely taking root in French society. However, if French and European culture borrows a lot from American culture, there are still some US celebrations that are unknown in Europe. Thanksgiving is one of them.

French Macarons for Thanksgiving in France. Photo Tasha.Sinchuk via Twenty20

Have some French Macarons for Thanksgiving! Photo Tasha.Sinchuk via Twenty20

For the moment, in France, Thanksgiving is timidly celebrated. A few restaurants now offer menus specially designed for the occasion.

But Thanksgiving in France is starting to become known thanks to the many American series such as Friends, Gossip Girl, The Simpsons or The Office. Thus, each season features Thanksgiving, during which the characters gather around a turkey or attend the famous Macys’ parade in New York.

How to celebrate Thanksgiving in France?

To celebrate Thanksgiving in France, it is better to meet expatriate Americans in France. Some places like American bars or associations organise traditional meals where all American citizens gather. Check this article on evous.fr for ideas of places where to go in 2021 for Thanksgiving in Paris.

Black Friday in France

It is paradoxical that while the French people are unfamiliar with the Thanksgiving holiday, they have seized upon the concept of Black Friday!

The day after Thanksgiving is also a special day. This Friday, Black Friday, is the occasion of major sales in practically all shops. It marks the start of the Christmas shopping season.

Many Americans considered Black Friday as the unofficial start of the holiday season. In the United States, it is famous for its huge discounts. But also for creating a general hysteria as customers run from shop to shop looking for the best deals!

Black Friday and Thanksgiving in France. Photo seventyfourimages via Envato Elements

Black Friday in France. Photo seventyfourimages via Envato Elements

Where does Black Friday come from?

It seems that in the 1960s, Black Friday referred to the increased pedestrian and vehicle traffic at the start of the Christmas shopping season.

A few years later, shopping on the day after Thanksgiving would bring in the “red” and thus the new positive numbers in black ink, hence the term “Black Friday”.

It was in the 1970s that American retailers decided to adopt this expression to designate the start of Christmas shopping.

The expansion of Black Friday in France

In France, Black Friday (Vendredi Noir) is a day of massive promotions. It also affects products that are usually not sold out (computers, smartphones, etc.). The event is mainly driven by the Internet. Some retailers take advantage of the opportunity and offer significant discounts valid for:

  • only 24 hours (the traditional duration of Black Friday) or
  • the entire weekend that follows.

This is a French specificity. Indeed, in the United States, the big promotions of Black Friday take place directly in the shops. It is only on the following Monday, Cyber Monday, that retailers offer price reductions on their websites.

Cyber Monday also takes place in France. However, it is only an extension of Black Friday since everything takes place on the Internet from Friday to Monday. Hence the name of this period: Cyber-Week.

In France, Black Friday started modestly in 2013 and took off in 2016.

In 2014, Auchan, Fnac, Darty, La Redoute, Leroy Merlin and Géant Casino, among others, launched Black Friday in their French stores for the first time.

Black Friday in France. Photo FabrikaPhoto via Envato Elements

Black Friday in France. Photo FabrikaPhoto via Envato Elements

The French interest in Black Friday took off in the mid-2010s

Since then, French interest in the event has increased every year. In November 2016, Google searches related to Black Friday in France more than doubled compared to the same period the previous year, reaching 2.4 million.

In 2015 and 2016, Amazon and Cdiscount were the most visited merchant sites by the French in the run-up to Black Friday, followed by Fnac, SFR and Darty. The most popular product categories during Black Friday in 2016 were electronics, home and fashion.

In 2017, Black Friday did no longer only take place online, but increasingly in physical stores.

Black Friday in France during the pandemic

On 31 October 2020, the French government put in place lockdown measures to fight the spread of the pandemic. The Minister of Finance, Bruno Le Maire, invited French retailers to postpone the Black Friday promotions this year.

On 20 November, the French government asked e-commerce companies such as Amazon and supermarket chains to postpone the Black Friday discount shopping promotion by one week to 4 December.


Find out more about Thanksgiving in France


 

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

4 Comments

  1. Proud Francophile American on

    As an American doing my shopping this weekend and getting ready to host Thanksgiving dinner, thank you for this post! It’s not often I get to read about my customs through someone else’s eyes, and it was quite delightful. One thing I’d like to mention about the history is that people are beginning to acknowledge that Thanksgiving wasn’t all that great for the Wampanoags and other Native Americans. While I was always taught that the colonists invited the natives, as you state, it turns out that is not true. The natives saw a huge number of people gathering, went to find out what was happening, and discovered a harvest feast, made possible by their tutelage. They ended up joining in, but were never actually invited. The Washington Post recently published an article on this subject that included that information. No matter the circumstances of the first Thanksgiving, though, the result of European colonists learning to survive in North America was a legacy of stolen land and disease that nearly wiped out the natives. While I’m very proud of my country and my family history (my ancestors landed at Plymouth Colony not long after the First Thanksgiving), I’m also proud that we are starting to reckon with what our history really means to those who have lived it from a different perspective. What’s special about Thanksgiving is that it is a holiday that can be enjoyed by everyone regardless of religion, and immigrants often celebrate it, too, bringing their own culture to the table and making it their own. We are in the very early stages of a bigger conversation around the true impact of Thanksgiving, but I hope someday we will at least include acknowledgement of the struggles of Native Americans, even as we celebrate.

    On a lighter note, one other tremendously important detail you left out – Thanksgiving is also famous as a day to watch college football games!

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