In his Thanksgiving holiday message, President Barack Obama called on Americans to come together in a spirit of unity after a contentious election season.
“Thanksgiving is a chance to put it all in perspective, to remember that despite our differences, we are and always will be Americans first and foremost," he said in his weekly radio and internet address, urging the country to put aside partisan differences after a campaign he called “passionate, noisy and vital to our democracy.”
Obama called on Americans, even as they celebrate the holiday, to do all they can to help less fortunate people, including those who lost homes along the country's Eastern seaboard because of the recent superstorm Sandy, asking everyone "to help families who are in need of a real Thanksgiving this year."
Macy's department store chain kicked off its annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, putting a festive mood into the air of a city still coping with the aftermath of the storm. Parade-goers enjoyed marching bands, performers and its giant balloons.
Five-thousand bleacher seats along the parade route were set aside for families affected by the storm.
After conducting the ceremonial pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey and delivering turkeys to a food bank for the needy on Wednesday, the president said he planned to spend Thursday in a private celebration with his family.
The holiday stems from a feast held in 1621 by pilgrims from England who, with American Indians in what is now the state of Massachusetts, expressed gratitude for their well-being by commemorating a harvest after a harsh winter.
George Washington called for a day of giving thanks and prayers in 1789, though it was not annually celebrated until President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
The holiday is ingrained in American life as a day for family gatherings with sumptuous turkey feasts. By one estimate, more than 43-million people are expected to travel 80 kilometers or more to attend holiday gatherings between now and Sunday.
Other Thanksgiving traditions are prominent in the U.S. as well, including religious services and key youth and professional football games.
The American Thanksgiving, by law on the fourth Thursday of November, also serves as somewhat of a respite from the commerce of the approaching holiday shopping season, leading to Christmas on December 25.
But that no-shopping-on-Thanksgiving tradition is fading in the U.S., with some chain stores planning to open their doors for early holiday gift-buying on Thursday night. That is just hours ahead of what is called Black Friday in the U.S., traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the entire year.
In part, the day has been called Black Friday because of the millions of shoppers and traffic congestion throughout the country, from its largest cities to small towns. But the term is also said to describe the day in which retailers have enough sales to be profitable, to put them in the black, in accounting terms.
Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of the U.S. economy and some retailers say end-of-year holiday spending accounts for about a quarter of their annual sales. But sales this year could increase just 2.5 percent compared to 2011, according to one estimate.
Holiday sales could be hurt by the sluggish pace of the U.S. economy, with more than 12 million workers still unemployed in the aftermath of the recession in 2008 and 2009.
One other complication is that the White House and Congress also are facing contentious government spending and tax issues that could further hurt the economy if left unresolved in the waning weeks of 2012. Almost all American workers face tax increases January 1 if the dispute is not resolved by the end of the year.
Some information for this report was provided by Reuters. White House correspondent Kent Klein contributed to this report.