Turkey Day: The Evolution of a Thanksgiving Tradition

turkey

The American Thanksgiving feast is almost unimaginable today without the turkey. The bird’s name, image, and flesh have become synonymous with the annual holiday, as evident from young children’s grade-school artwork, grocery store advertisements, political ceremonies, and professional football game trophies.1 Since the turkey’s modest inception at the seventeenth-century harvest celebration of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people, the creature’s stature has greatly ascended.

Humble Origins

For starters, whether turkey (Meleagris gallapavo) was consumed at that famous gathering of 1621 is dubious. The few records available indicate that an extensive amount of game was prepared for the three-day autumnal feast at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the event often considered the precursor of and model for our Thanksgiving holiday. First-person accounts from participants Edward Winslow and William Bradford reveal that, along with venison and fish, “fowle” / “foule” was served.2 However, experts have expressed skepticism about whether this reference meant turkeys, noting that ducks and geese were more likely due to their prevalence in that area.3, 4

Meanwhile, during the time of the harvest event at the Plymouth colony, turkeys from North America were already being consumed in England.5 Approximately a century prior to this historic celebration, European explorers had discovered the domesticated turkey in what is today Mexico.  When conquering the Aztecs, the Spaniards brought these birds back along with them. Oddly enough, the fowl’s similarity to another established galliform led to its eventual namesake. “Guinea fowl, a native of Africa, was known as a turkey in some areas because some of the domesticated stock had been imported from Turkey,” explains zoologist Osmond Breland in his book Animal Life and Lore. “Out of this confusion, the American fowls were also called turkeys.”6 So this, in short, is how a New World bird acquired the name of a Middle Eastern country.

The American turkey quickly assumed its spot among prominent feast birds, eventually eclipsing them.  For centuries throughout Europe, other large and more abundant fowl had adorned tables during celebratory meals and festive occasions. In England, roasted swan had been popular in such circumstances.7 Domesticated geese had been commonly used as well, especially during autumn.8 The custom of two children pulling opposite ends of the wishbone or furcula to obtain a granted wish or to determine who would be the first to marry may have even begun with the greylag goose.9 When the turkey grew in popularity, so did the transfer of this ritual. The turkey was a poultry favorite among the American colonists, though Benjamin Franklin’s letter expressing admiration for the bird as a symbol for the new country has been overstated and misunderstood.

The Dinner Table Centerpiece of a Holiday

By the nineteenth century, the turkey gained a prominent position within the Thanksgiving meal, thanks primarily to novelist and Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Her efforts persuaded President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to declare Thanksgiving a nationally recognized annual holiday; she also popularized the turkey’s culinary importance in her writings.10 Besides establishing this distinctly American celebration, President Lincoln became the first U.S. commander-in-chief to “pardon” the bird. The presidential practice of granting selected turkeys clemency from the dinner table, however, did not catch on until a century later, starting with President John F. Kennedy.11

Without the vision of Hale and the influence of Lincoln, Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today perhaps would not exist. Of course, the colloquial moniker “Turkey Day” may be an unfortunate indictment that this special occasion, established for expressing gratitude, has turned into our nation’s most gluttonous pastime.

Sources:

  1. “NFL Thanksgiving Day Football History, Trivia, and Fun Facts,” 11/24/10, 1/3/2015. Sports Geekery: http://www.sportsgeekery.com/3815/nfl-thanksgiving-day-football-history-and-fun-facts/.
  2. “Primary Sources for the ‘First Thanksgiving’ at Plymouth.” Pilgrim Hall Museum: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/TG_What_Happened_in_1621.pdf.
  3. Armstrong, E. “The First Thanksgiving,” 11/27/2002. The Christian Science Monitor. http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/1127/p13s02-lign.html.
  4. Krulwich, R. “First Thanksgiving Dinner: No Turkeys. No Ladies. No Pies,” 11/23/2011. NPR. http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2010/11/22/131516586/who-brought-the-turkey-the-truth-about-the-first-thanksgiving.
  5. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 44.
  6. Breland, OP. Animal Life and Lore: Revised Edition.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972. p. 148.
  7. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 44.
  8. Weidensaul, S. The Birder’s Miscellany: A Fascinating Collection of Facts, Figures, and Folklore from the World of Birds.  New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991. p. 93.
  9. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 104.
  10. Krulwich, R.
  11. Montanaro, D. “The Strange Truth Behind Presidential Turkey Pardons,” 11/25/2015. NPR: http://www.npr.org/2015/11/25/457253194/the-strange-truth-behind-presidential-turkey-pardons.

 

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6 thoughts on “Turkey Day: The Evolution of a Thanksgiving Tradition

  1. I just read another blog post that focused on Sarah Josepha Hale, and here she is again. I didn’t know a thing about her role in the development of Thanksgiving as a holiday; now I do.

    Actually, I learned several things here, including how the turkey got its name. During my recent trip through the midwest, I was lucky enough to come across a large flock of wild turkeys near a lake in western Kansas. They really are handsome birds, and fun to watch.

    I’d forgotten about the tradition of the “wish-bone.” My grandmother called it the “pully-bone” — presumably because two of us pulled it to make our wish. I haven’t done that in years, but it’s been a good while since turkey graced the Thanksgiving table. One day we all looked at one another and said, “You know, we don’t really like turkey.” Options were found.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Though she’s not a household name, Hale seems to have been one of the most influential women in American history. She was a prominent U.S. writer and editor. Besides her role in Thanksgiving, she wrote the children’s poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Anyway, thanks for reading the post and sharing your experiences. The turkey indeed is a beautiful bird (and can be fierce even if its vocals sound a bit silly.) I hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  2. I saw a flock of wild turkeys at the edge of the forest in Northern Arizona and was absolutely in awe. The size of the bird is very impressive, especially if you see them in a group. Thank you for this wonderful story.

  3. Turkey normally was popular here as the main dish for Christmas Day lunch as part of the British holiday traditions we followed. Thanksgiving didn’t figure in all that. These days, as it’s summer over here, cold dishes tend to be favoured, although the more traditional hot fare can be had. As to the bird itself, I’ve seen the Brush Turkey in lower eastern Queensland in the wild. They’re not afraid of people. And are much smaller. They are protected and seem to be solitary.
    I must admit to always enjoying a bit of turkey with cranberry sauce in a sandwich, cold.

    1. I had never heard of the brush turkey, so I went online to check for photos. The head and neck are very colorful. Thanks for telling me about this bird. Your country obviously has lots of interesting avifauna. As colder weather is kicking in here, I hope you are enjoying the warm weather down there.

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