Thanksgiving: Pop culture's forgotten holiday (sort of)

Sure, Halloween and the winter holidays get all the movies and songs. But Thanksgiving has gotten a few famous places in pop culture, from the Peanuts to Steve Martin trying to get home.

By , Staff Writer

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    Steve Martin and John Candy try out all the forms of transportation in the movie's title to get home for Thanksgiving dinner, while Charlie Brown finds himself hosting a meal for his friends despite only being able to cook 'cold cereal and maybe toast.'
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It’s almost Turkey Day, and so obviously it’s time to turn on those… Thanksgiving… movies and play all those Thanksgiving… songs?

Okay, so compared to the winter holidays and even Halloween, Thanksgiving, sandwiched in between, gets short shrift in pop culture. In terms of holiday movies, most of America would probably recognize the Peanuts singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or the Grinch stealing presents (and that’s just the animated movies), and even Halloween has gotten some Disney movies that are beloved by many ‘90s children such as “Hocus Pocus,” “Halloweentown,” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” to say nothing of frightfests centered around the holiday such as the cannily titled “Halloween.”

While Thanksgiving may bring to mind turkey dinners and family gatherings, it doesn't have a lot of pop-culture recognition. However, while it’s lagged far behind its fellow fall and winter holidays, the celebration and its turkey-laden tables have served as the focus for a few movies, some classic TV episodes, and even a couple of songs. Here are a few you may have forgotten about.

Recommended: 4 holiday TV classics that came from the printed page

Movies:

–The most well-known is probably the 1987 film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” which finds a frantic Steve Martin (playing the straight man, mostly) trying to get home for Thanksgiving and meeting a friendly but disaster-prone fellow traveler (John Candy). The movie also features a turn by “This Is Spinal Tap” actor Michael McKean as a state trooper and a cameo by Kevin Bacon, whose character snags a taxi ahead of Martin.

–“Pieces of April,” which was released in 2003, stars Katie Holmes as April, a Manhattan resident trying to cook dinner for her estranged family in her tiny apartment as the family deals with April’s mother (Patricia Clarkson)’s breast cancer.

–“Home for the Holidays” is a 1995 film starring “The Incredibles” actress Holly Hunter as Claudia, a single mom who decides to spend Thanksgiving with her parents and siblings. Charles Durning and Anne Bancroft played Mom and Dad, while Robert Downey Jr. was the brother who tries to set up Claudia with a friend of his.  

–The Peanuts gang, welcome at any time of year, celebrated the holiday in two separate specials. 1973 saw “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” which first aired on CBS and includes Lucy pulling that pesky football away, Charlie Brown suddenly finding himself hosting a holiday dinner for some of the other kids, and Snoopy and Woodstock in Pilgrim costumes. As part of the series “This is America, Charlie Brown,” the Peanuts gang tagged along with the Pilgrims for the first Thanksgiving dinner in Plymouth in an episode titled “The Mayflower Voyagers,” which first aired in 1988.

TV episodes:

–The longrunning NBC sitcomFriends,” which ran from 1994 to 2004, became well-known for its Thanksgiving episodes. Memorable escapades included all six playing a touch football game which brought up old sibling rivalries between brother and sister Ross and Monica, Chandler spending the holiday in a cardboard box to make up for kissing his roommate’s girlfriend, and star Jennifer Aniston’s then-husband Brad Pitt guest-starring as an old high school classmate.

–“Cheers,” which aired from 1982 to 1993, featured a Thanksgiving dinner that ended up airborne when the cast went to Carla (Rhea Perlman)’s house for a badly cooked dinner which turned into a food fight.

Songs:

–Many classic rock radio stations still play the 1967 song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” recorded by Arlo Guthrie, at noon (or occasionally other times) on Thanksgiving Day. The anti-draft song is 18 minutes long and considered a Turkey Day song because the main character, Arlo Guthrie, is arrested for littering after the town dump being closed on Thanksgiving Day leads him and his friend to throw their trash elsewhere.

–Though people who only know the beginning may be confused by its association with Thanksgiving, the song “Over the River and Through the Wood,” written by Lydia Marie Child in 1844, is often now sung for Thanksgiving because of the end of its second verse, which states “We would not stop for doll or top/For ‘tis Thanksgiving Day.” (The last line mentions pumpkin pie, too, but that could be for either Thanksgiving or the later holidays, we guess.)

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