12 Retro Thanksgiving Traditions That Have Become Obsolete

These now outdated Turkey Day traditions didn't quite pass the test of time.

thanksgiving roast turkey on table

Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, families gather at Thanksgiving for a celebratory feast of savory dishes and classic pastries. Some Thanksgiving traditions harken all the way back to the holiday's inception, before our country was born—evolving over the decades to become something akin to a live-action version of a familiar Norman Rockwell tableau.

Thanksgiving is a deeply traditional holiday, but as is the case with traditions, they often adapt to the times, morph into something wholly different, or fade away entirely. Even once-classic customs from our parents and grandparents generations have since fallen by the wayside. We still ceremoniously carve up a golden-brown bird and children still make handprint turkeys to put on the family refrigerator, but countless other Thanksgiving traditions have faded from the annual festivities. Here's a look at the Thanksgiving customs that didn't age quite so well with the times.

Sending Thanksgiving greeting cards

thanksgiving card with turkey in front

We're accustomed to sending and receiving annual Christmas cards, and kids still love to trade Valentine's Day cards with friends each February. But at the turn of the 20th century, people also used to send Thanksgiving greeting cards featuring quaint illustrations of pumpkins, pilgrims, turkeys, and seasonal sentiments of thanks.

Having a kids' table

Portrait of happy girl sitting at festive table and looking at camera

Maybe there was no more room at the dining table, or maybe the adults just needed a break, but for many years, it was not uncommon to separate the two generations during Thanksgiving dinner. A discrete, often tiny, arrangement, the kids' table was a place for siblings, cousins, and anyone else without a valid driver's license to break bread in a parent-free setting. A 2018 survey conducted by Juicy Juice and ORC International, however, indicates that the once popular seating method may be on its last legs, as 61 percent of parents now opt to have the entire family seated together.

Using place cards

blank place card among autumn leaves

You would expect to see place cards at a wedding reception, otherwise how would you know which table to sit at? But did you know that it was once pretty common to also see them on the table at Thanksgiving dinner? That's right, these finely scripted labels displaying the names of each family member were trimmed to perfection and placed on the table for the holiday meal. But as you might have already guessed, they have become far less common, as families continue to move away from some of the more formal Thanksgiving traditions, opting instead for a more casual, organically formed affair.

Using fine china

fancy thanksgiving dinnerware

Today, the fine and filigree plates, cups, and gravy bowls of a family's china set are rather mysterious. You rarely ever see them, let alone handle or, gasp, eat and drink from them. But decades ago, you did for special occasions—and Thanksgiving dinner was, for many families, the kind of occasion special enough to warrant an appearance by the otherwise elusive chinaware.

Sadly, that seems to be less and less the case. Millennials don't seem to relish the burden of storing boxes of delicate dinnerware. So these days, it's far more common for families to stick with their everyday dishes on Turkey Day.

Using fancy silverware

Antique Silverware Place Setting in a Brown Napkin and Tied with Ribbon on White Backgroun

Just as we brought out the fine china for Thanksgiving, we also rolled out the fancy silverware rarely used on the other 364 days of the year. You guys know what we're talking about—those forks, knives, and spoons that for some reason are too special to be cleaned in the dishwasher.

But with millennials putting an end to the silver inheritance, the era of fancy flatware, too, has come to a close. And who really wants to spend the day polishing great-grandma's sterling silver for one meal when everyday flatware does the job just fine?

Making homemade centerpieces

orange and yellow thanksgiving table centerpiece

Back in the day, no Thanksgiving table was complete without an elaborate homemade centerpiece. Family members of all ages would help construct ornate displays of decorative gourds and seasonal fruit, or perhaps some autumn leaves and garden-clipped flowers.

Today, families are far likelier to set out a bouquet in a seasonal vase or use a clean, sleek arrangement of candles as table decor.

Revisiting the first Thanksgiving

first thanksgiving 1621

Before digging in to the turkey and stuffing, families once made it an annual tradition to retell the story of the first Thanksgiving. While grade schools covered the basics, a yearly family brush-up on T-Day trivia informed us of details like turkey's absence from the menu; instead, our forebears dined on venison, duck, and oysters.

Today, kids can instantly access the history of Thanksgiving on any number of devices, though we doubt that's what they are reading about when sneaking a peak at their phones during dinner.

Playing football before dinner

thanksgiving football concept

In the countdown of hours leading up to the main event, many families used to work up an appetite for a Thanksgiving feast by tossing around the old pigskin. Fun, feisty, and (we hope) friendly, a pre-dinner family football game kept kids busy and political discussions at bay.

So much Jell-O

Eating Red Jelly or Jello

Some beloved family recipes are carefully preserved and lovingly passed down over generations, while other vintage Thanksgiving recipes are unlikely to appear on modern menus. Fare thee well, Turkey on Jell-O and cranberry surprise.

Snapping the wishbone


The wishbone tradition goes back thousands of years: In Ancient Roman times, chicken bones embodied good luck. So, when two people pulled apart a wishbone, the person left with the larger piece was rewarded, in theory, with good luck or a granted wish.

In many households in the 20th century, the breaking of the wishbone was either a hallowed ritual, a corny rite that Uncle Wally insisted he supervise, or an intended event that later found itself lost in the haze of a post-feast food coma. Today, our culture of instant gratification has designated the wishbone ritual to the cultural dustheap: After all, only a dry turkey wishbone will break, and that means having to wait … patiently.

Relaxing after dinner

exhausted man napping on couch

Remember the days when, after finishing the dishes and packing the leftovers, you got to kick back for some well-deserved down time? Well, those days are kind of over. Black Friday may officially take place the day after Thanksgiving, but it starts well before that at most major retailers. Each year, the number of stores announcing doorbuster deals on Thanksgiving Day itself continues to grow to increase sales: For example, in 2018, "Black Thursday" netted U.S. retailers $3.7 billion in online sales.

Observing Franksgiving

fdr bobby kennedy

Ah, the family Franksgiving. Ring any bells? Probably not, and here's why. Since the late 19th century, Thanksgiving was traditionally celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Enter former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1939 found himself, and the rest of the country, staring down a Nov. 30 Thanksgiving and a shrunken holiday-shopping calendar. As a solution, FDR moved the holiday up a week to satisfy retailers and bolster the economy. But the country never really got on board with Franksgiving, as it was mockingly referred to, and in late 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution returning the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November—a reminder that some traditions were never meant to be.

Tracy Collins Ortlieb
Tracy Collins Ortlieb is a lifestyle writer. Read more
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