As a British person, Thanksgiving has always seemed a little weird to me. It’s always seemed like a strange, pre-Christmas celebration. Much like Christmas, though, it’s a holiday often celebrated on TV shows and, occasionally, with TV specials. This got me thinking—where did this tradition start?
The first Thanksgiving special, “The Rootie Tootie Thanksgiving Special,” premiered in 1950 and aired on NBC. It appears to be a three to four hour-long kids show that was filmed at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. It can be found on YouTube, and it somewhat terrifying. The premise is a Thanksgiving feast hosted by a puppet boy named Rootie Tootie and his fellow puppet friends.
It's mostly a series of songs with some education on the mild version of the story of Thanksgiving, and a bunch of ads.
This was just the beginning. A dozen others came in the decade that followed, including the first Thanksgiving specials of The Lawrence Welk Show. This was a variety show with a big jazz band that aired from 1951 until 1982, and each episode had a theme. Most themes were patriotic, which was not surprising given that the start of the show coincided with the start of the Cold War, and the only holiday more American than Thanksgiving is the Fourth of July.
The number of Thanksgiving specials rose slowly over the decades, until 1996. In 1996, there was a sudden boom in Thanksgiving episodes, particularly in sitcom shows like Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Boy Meets World. For each of these shows, this was the first time they added a Thanksgiving-themed episode, even though they had been airing for many seasons.
There doesn’t seem to be anything special about Thanksgiving 1996, except for it being the 70th anniversary of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It is possible that there was some TV executive planning behind this, as in airing Thanksgiving episodes before the day would get people in the mood to watch the parade, but that’s just a theory.
The number of Thanksgiving specials has not since reached the peak that it reached in 1996, but it also hasn’t drastically decreased, which may be related to the fact that Thanksgiving has become more heavily criticized for celebrating the genocide of Native Americans.
It could also be because fewer shows can accommodate an episode based on the holiday, or because people just stopped being interested. Whatever the reasoning is, the most common genre for them is still the sitcom, which is likely due to the ability to make comedic situations out of family gatherings—as seen by the incredible about of sit-coms based at Christmas, weddings, and other family gatherings.
Another question is why don’t all U.S. TV shows have Thanksgiving episodes? My only concrete response to that is since TV shows have to appeal to an international audience, especially as it gets easier to watch TV online, Thanksgiving is a holiday that is U.S.-specific so most shows don’t bother. Personally, I barely ever notice that they exist.