Thanksgiving is a public holiday in the United States celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November – in 2000, Thanksgiving was on November 23. Originating as a harvest festival, it has been celebrated nationally since 1793, and was declared a federal holiday in 1863.
It is clear that the Autumn Festival celebrates the lead up to Thanksgiving. Interestingly, the word “Thanksgiving” is never mentioned in the episode, yet it is obvious that it is the theme of the festival from context. Notice how often the words “thank you” are used in this episode – Rory even thanks Dean for giving her a kiss!
Especially in the early part of the episode, many of the symbols of Thanksgiving are in evidence or discussed.
Autumn leaves: suitable decorations for the season of the year.
Pilgrims: Americans trace the First Thanksgiving to a 1621 celebration in Plymouth (now in Massachusetts). The Pilgrims, who were English Dissenters, were given help by the local Native American people in catching and growing food, and added to their stores when supplies were low. The Pilgrims invited the local people to their harvest supper, which lasted for days and was held somewhere between late September and early November.
Indians: Lorelai tells Rory to save her apologies for the Indians, referring to the devastating effects of European settlement on the Native American population and culture. Because of it, Native Americans of New England have held a National Day of Mourning as a protest on Thanksgiving since 1970.
Turkey: This poultry native to the Americas plays a central role in Thanksgiving dinner, usually served roasted and stuffed. It is said to be one of the foods served at the semi-legendary First Thanksgiving, making it a traditional choice (they also ate a ton of eel, cod, and venison, but nobody cares much about that).
Pumpkin: A food native to the Americas in season in autumn, and a symbol of the harvest. Pumpkin pie is a traditional dessert for Thanksgiving dinner (which sounds wrong as a sweet, but tastes really nice).
Squash: Like pumpkin, autumn squash are native to the Americas and ripe for the season, making them a natural choice for Thanksgiving dinner.
Horn of plenty: Also known as a cornucopia, this has been a symbol of prosperity and abundance from classic times, and has long been connected with the harvest season. In the US, this has made it a natural fit as a Thanksgiving symbol, and is often a decorative wicker basket filled with fruits and vegetables.
Canned goods drive: Donating canned goods to the less fortunate in a common charitable cause at Thanksgiving. In Stars Hollow, the collection point for the canned food drive is actually called the Horn of Plenty. Rory and Lane both volunteer to work at the Stars Hollow canned goods drive, for which they dress in Pilgrim costumes, with an Autumn Festival badge
The “Mayflower” and Plymouth Rock: Taylor and Dean attempt to make a display of canned soup look like either the Mayflower, or when that fails, Plymouth Rock. The Mayflower was the ship on which the Pilgrims arrived in the New World in November 1620, and Plymouth Rock in Plymouth Harbor was traditionally where they disembarked. Both are items of great veneration.