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Celebrate Thanksgiving History in Chicago

Every American knows about the first feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. But how much do you know about the history of Thanksgiving in Chicago?

While the activities at the first Thanksgiving are hotly debated, one thing remains clear: it’s a day of traditions (both new and old), family, food — and football. And there’s no better place to celebrate all four than in the Windy City. If you’re looking for a way to celebrate Thanksgiving like a Chicagoan, look no further than these eight Midwest traditions.

Uncle Dan’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

For some families, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV is the epitome of Thanksgiving tradition. Yet Chicago has its own Thanksgiving Day Parade tradition — one that started during the height of the Great Depression.

In 1934, the president of the State Street Council, Walter Gregory, and the mayor at the time, Edward Kelly, dreamed up an idea to hold a parade to raise the spirits of Chicagoans during what they knew had been a horrific year for many residents.

The parade was a success: it both raised spirits and gave the economy the boost it needed. In fact, the parade contributed to a boost in sales in nearby stores during the holidays.

As sponsorship for the parade switched hands over the years, so has the name. It’s been called:

  • State Street Christmas Parade
  • McDonald’s Children’s Charity Parade
  • The Field’s Jingle Elf Parade
  • Target Thanksgiving Day Parade

In 2018, it was renamed to Uncle Dan’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (after the local outdoor retail store).


You can’t even mention Thanksgiving without thinking about the “holiday” that immediately follows: Black Friday. And like many Macy’s stores around the country, the one on State Street in Chicago is full of history.

Finished in 1893, the building that houses Macy’s was designed by Charles B. Atwood. Originally a Marshall Field’s, the department store has been owned by Macy’s since 2006. Macy’s in Chicago is known for its many walnut paneled porticos, and the building was even awarded a spot on the National Historic Landmark Registry in 1978.

Some of the building’s features include the Tiffany ceiling in the cosmetics department, the many great clocks on the building’s corners, the Burnham Fountain and the Walnut Room restaurant.

It’s also Chicago tradition to check out some of the famous window displays at the store.

Chicago Bears

Even people who “don’t like football” like football on Thanksgiving Day. Yet for many families, the sport is a part of the day’s traditions.

The Bears have been “invited” into homes across the city each year — and many residents have flocked to spend their Thanksgiving Days in the stands.

Though the Bears won’t play at home on Thanksgiving in 2018 (they’ll play the Detroit Lions in Detroit), the Chicago team was the first team to host a Thanksgiving Day game back in 1922. In 1928, the Bears won 34-0 against the Chicago Cardinals — the largest win in the NFL during a Thanksgiving Day game.

Pumpkin Pie

The pumpkin pie debate is pretty heated all over the country. In Chicago, there are few rivalries that are as divisive as the pumpkin pie/apple pie debate. (Don’t even get us started with the White Sox/Cubs).

Yet Chicago is known for three things: great sports teams, its chilly winters — and its unparalleled restaurant scene. At the forefront of this culinary world is the Michelin-starred restaurant, Alinea.

Known for its science-meets-food tricks of the senses, Alinea has developed a translucent pumpkin pie that even anti-pumpkin diners can agree they enjoy.

Turkey Trot

Before we load up on all that turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, it’s just as much of a tradition to “work” it off in a turkey trot. (OK, OK: some of us work it off, and some of us watch from the sidelines dressed in costumes.)

No matter how you like to celebrate this tradition, it’s become just as much a part of our holiday fabric as the turkey itself.

In Chicago, this tradition runs pretty deep. In fact, Chicago’s Turkey Trot has been held annually since 1963 — which makes it the oldest continually running event in Elmhurst. Like other Turkey Trots around the U.S., Chicago’s began as a way to raise money in the fight against hunger. Participants pay a small entry fee, and the money ($3.5 million to date) goes to charity.


The day before Thanksgiving is historically known as the biggest bar night of the year. Most Americans don’t need to head to work the next day. They’re also visiting friends and family they haven’t seen all year. How do they celebrate? By heading to their local watering holes.

While this “tradition” has been celebrated year after year, commercialism has taken its toll. Bars and on-demand car services have been “leaning in” to this spike in sales in the past few years. All over Chicago, you’ll find drink specials, live music and special events — all dedicated to the holiday before the holiday.

American Indian Center of Chicago

Modern Thanksgiving Day traditions generally revolve around food and family gatherings. Yet we can’t forget the mythology behind the first Thanksgiving: the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans.

In no city was that relationship more important than in Chicago.

Before Europeans settled the area and deemed it an important port, Native American tribes had built villages through the area we now know as Chicago. Even the word “Chicago” comes from a Native American word (possibly from the word “shikkaakwa” that meant striped skunk).

Though the American Indian Center of Chicago will possibly be closed on Thanksgiving Day, you might want to stop by before the big day to gain a deeper understanding of the indigenous tribes that put Chicago on the map.


Just as America has evolved over the past few centuries, so have American traditions. Gone are the days when everyone heads home to spend Thanksgiving with family. Even our definition of “family” as Americans has changed over the past few decades.

Friendsgiving is just as big a holiday in Chicago as it is in any large city in the U.S. Many Chicagoans opt out of traveling on one of the biggest travel days of the year in lieu of celebrating the holiday with those closest to them (possibly both geographically and metaphorically). Just don’t forget to call your mother between friendship toasts.

No matter how you choose to celebrate Thanksgiving in Chicago, you’re sure to experience that famous Midwestern hospitality. Whether you’re celebrating with family or with friends, you’ll be in good company.

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