Talking Turkey: The Evolution of a Thanksgiving Tradition


Although Thanksgiving is today considered a holiday of traditions, one may be surprised by how much the celebration has evolved from its origins and observance in early America. The emphasis on the stuffed turkey ranks among the biggest changes.

Not at the Table?

Today very few birds, if any, can boast of such popular use in holiday iconography as the Meleagris gallapavo. For most Americans, the annual Thanksgiving feast is nearly unimaginable without it, as we often playfully refer to the celebration as “Turkey Day”. But this was not always so. The bird’s place at the dinner table has changed, as have other foods now connected with the holiday.

In fact, the turkey’s role in the initial gathering is questionable at best. Records indicate that a fair amount of game was prepared for the three-day autumnal feast in 1621 at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the event between the Pilgrim settlers and native Wampanoag people often thought of as the precursor of and model for our Thanksgiving holiday. And first-person accounts from participants Edward Winslow and William Bradford do note that besides venison and fish, “fowle” / “foule” was served (1). As to whether this reference included wild turkeys, experts believe ducks and geese were more likely due to their abundance in that area during the fall (2, 3). Ironically, turkeys from North America were already being consumed in England (4).

A New World Bird Named After an Old World Country

Approximately a century prior to the historic celebration in Plymouth, 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. Strangely 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. Out of this confusion, the American fowls were also called turkeys,” explains zoologist O.P. Breland. He remarks, though, “Just why the North American bird should have completely usurped this title is not recorded.” (5)

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 (6). Domesticated geese had been commonly used as well, especially during autumn (7). And 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 (8). When the turkey grew in popularity, so did the transfer of this ritual.

The Centerpiece of an American Holiday

By the nineteenth century, the turkey had gained a prominent position within the Thanksgiving meal, thanks primarily to novelist and Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale. Not only did her efforts persuade President Lincoln in 1863 to declare Thanksgiving a nationally recognized annual holiday, she popularized the turkey’s culinary importance in her writings (9). Without her vision, perhaps Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today would not exist. Of course, the colloquial moniker “Turkey Day” may be an unfortunate indictment that this special occasion, established for expressing gratitude, has perhaps turned into our most gluttonous of pastimes. Oh well. Gobble, gobble!


  1. “Primary Sources for the ‘First Thanksgiving’ at Plymouth.” Pilgrim Hall Museum.
  2. Armstrong, E. “The First Thanksgiving,” 11/27/2002. The Christian Science Monitor.
  3. Krulwich, R. “First Thanksgiving Dinner: No Turkeys. No Ladies. No Pies.” 11/23/2011. NPR.
  4. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 44.
  5. Breland, O.P. Animal Life and Lore: Revised Edition. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1972. p. 148.
  6. Cocker, M., Tipling, D.
  7. 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.
  8. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 104.
  9. Krulwich, R.