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.

 

Symbolism behind Coats of Arms

heraldry_bestiary

Ostriches are fond of eating shiny metal objects. Or so the thinking used to go. Insignias on coats of arms reinforced this difficult-to-digest idea, as did medieval bestiaries. Even William Shakespeare refers to the notion in a dramatic duel scene:

 … I’ll make thee eat iron like an ostrich and
swallow my sword like a great pin…

This curious threat comes from one of the bard’s staged histories, The Second Part of King Henry VI (Act 4, Scene 10, Lines 28-29).

Though not native to England, these big birds were brought there long before Shakespeare’s time. In fact, several royal precursors to Henry VI owned ostriches, including Normandy’s William the Conqueror and King John. The latter kept them among his stable of exotic creatures. Interestingly, archaeological digs of London’s old Lion Tower have uncovered nails near the neck bones of these birds’ remains, suggesting that people once fed ostriches sharp metal pieces (1). Wow, talk about heartburn!

Notions of iron-eating ostriches captivated the European imagination, as evident from iconography depicting ostriches with nails, keys, and horseshoes in their beaks. Typically representing an individual of great authority or religious zeal (2), the images made up part of a vast collection of symbols used in heraldry.

Emblems for Nations, Statesmen, and Rock Stars

Heraldry is an elaborate system of symbols used to represent the identities of individuals, families, cities, and nations. Though primarily associated today with European nobility, the practice spans the world and goes back thousands of years. Several ancient nations of the Middle East adopted representational images of the eagle (3), a bird that has remained popular as a heraldic symbol. Similar displays of national coats of arms are designed in the spirit of this tradition. Many feature feathered animals: Chile’s includes the condor; Uganda’s, the crested crane; and Nauru’s, the frigatebird (4)

Individuals have frequently relied on avian symbols for expressing personal characteristics, such as rank, origin, and occupation. Adorning Sir Paul McCartney’s coat of arms are a guitar and a “liver bird,” the latter a heraldic emblem of the former Beatle’s hometown, Liverpool (5). By the way, the “liver bird” is based on the cormorant, just as the mythical martlet, a small bird depicted without feet, is modeled on the swallow or house martin (6). Commonly used by the younger sons of a large family, the martlet appears in several places on Ben Franklin’s arms (7). Franklin, after all, was one of seventeen children!

The Fun Side of Heraldry

Sometimes considered esoteric and stale, heraldry I’ve discovered can be rather fascinating—even amusing. For example, take the coat of arms of Benjamin Franklin’s contemporary, American statesman John Hancock. This man obviously had a sense of humor. Making light of his name, he chose an open hand and three roosters or cocks as his symbols (8).

William Shakespeare’s coat of arms suggests that he, too, had fun using images to play on his surname. The “spear” element is obvious: prominently displayed are a couple of large, pen-like items of the weapon (9). The “shake” part of the design, however, relies on an unfamiliar reference. Gripping one of the spears is a falcon readying for flight. This action didn’t initially mean anything to me, but I soon learned that the motion is referred to in falconry as “the shaking” (10). As a result, I came away once again impressed with the wit of England’s greatest punster and wordsmith.

Though not as popular as during Shakespeare’s time, the ancient art form of heraldry is still alive and well today. Aficionados are continuing to find creative ways to enjoy their pastime. A few websites devote space to looking at the heraldry employed in Game of Thrones, studying Disney’s fictional McDuck family’s coat of arms, and generating heraldic representations of National Football League team logos. What I enjoy most, of course, is that birds can be seen on all of them!

Sources:

  1. Heck, C, Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. pp. 550–552.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 56.
  3. Ingersoll, E. p. 28.
  4. J. The Complete Guide to National Symbols and Emblems. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. pp. 120, 229, 928.
  5. Wilson, AN. “As the Bercows unveil their boastful coat of arms, the vulgar truth about family crests”, 11/30/2011. Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2068401/Speaker-John-Bercow-coat-arms-The-vulgar-truth-family-crests.html.
  6. Vinycomb, J. Fictitious & Symbolic Creatures in Art with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 1906. pp. 186, 187, 189.
  7. “Famous Coats of Arms”. International Heraldry: http://www.internationalheraldry.com/famous.htm.
  8. “Famous Coats of Arms”. International Heraldry.
  9. Dingfelder, S. “A draft of Shakespeare’s coat of arms is on display for Folger Shakespeare Library’s ‘Symbols of Honor’”, 7/10/2014. The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2014/07/10/a-draft-of-shakespeares-coat-of-arms-is-on-display-at-folger-shakespeare-librarys-symbols-of-honor/.
  10. Duncan-Jones, K. Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan: 1592-1623. London: A & C Black, 2011. p. 107.

Fowl Ball: Birds as Mascots and Monikers

eagle_goteam

Out of hundreds of university and college team nicknames in the United States, one easily soars above the rest. In fact, according to Roy E. Yarbrough, a professor of sports management studies and author of a book on mascots, more than seventy schools use the same bird moniker (1, 2).

Symbols of Power, Emblems of Distinction

Fans of Boston College, Emory University, Marquette University, North Carolina Central University, and Tennessee Tech may already know the answer. Yes, the Eagles are #1. That moniker easily outranks other notables, such as Tigers, Bulldogs, Panthers, and Knights. It also is more than twice as common as the second-most popular bird nickname, the Hawks (3).

The popularity of raptors—eagles, hawks, and the like—is easy to understand. Like other popular team nicknames, such as Cougars, Bears, and Warriors, these birds are symbols of strength and finesse. Of course, birds generally known for their courage and aggressive behavior, such as Cocks and Cardinals, also make for common monikers in college athletics.

Perhaps as a way of setting themselves apart, some schools have opted for more unusual nicknames. As examples, there are the Ducks (University of Oregon), the Roadrunners (University of Texas at San Antonio), the Penguins (Youngstown State University in Ohio), and the Herons (William Smith College, a women’s college in New York state).

Birds Make it Big in the Pros

Professional sports organizations within the United States and Canada have displayed a bit of variety in their chosen monikers. Below is a compilation of thirteen clubs named after birds, from the Canadian Football League (CFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Hockey League (NHL):

Anaheim Ducks (NHL)

Arizona Cardinals (NFL)

Atlanta Falcons (NFL)

Atlanta Hawks (NBA)

Baltimore Orioles (MLB)

Baltimore Ravens (NFL)

Montreal Alouettes (CFL)

New Orleans Pelicans (NBA)

Philadelphia Eagles (NFL)

Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)

Seattle Seahawks (NFL)

St. Louis Cardinals (MLB)

Toronto Blue Jays (MLB)

At this time Major League Soccer lacks any teams with bird monikers. However, one franchise, D.C. United, includes a stylized bald eagle as part of its logo.

Two hockey clubs absent from the above list, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, require a bit of explanation. Despite their costumed bird mascot Tommy Hawk, the Chicago team’s name is actually inspired by a Sauk Indian chief (4, 5). And while the logo for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, a franchise known briefly as the Falcons during the early 1930s, features feathered wings on a wheel, the team does not explicitly convey the name of any particular type of bird (6). So, these two clubs actually do not have bird-inspired nicknames, so that’s why they’re not included.

Like the Chicago Blackhawk’s Tommy, several popular bird mascots promote teams that do not bear their likeness. For instance, the Pittsburgh Pirates, a Major League Baseball team, have the Pirate Parrot (7). Even the biggest star among costumed squawkers and arguably the most influential mascot in all of sports history, The San Diego Chicken (a.k.a. The Famous Chicken), is not officially connected to any particular team (8).

When College Nicknames and Mascots Don’t Match

In the world of collegiate sports, several popular bird mascots, too, are not directly related to their school’s team nickname. For starters, there’s Sebastian the Ibis, who cheers for the University of Miami Hurricanes. You’re probably wondering, what does an ibis have to do with hurricanes? Well, the Mascot Hall of Fame website explains, “According to folk legend, the ibis is the last sign of wildlife to take shelter before a hurricane, and the first to return after the storm passes” (9).

On the opposite side of the gridiron, another avian mascot represents Miami’s conference rival, the Virginia Tech Hokies. Derived from the school’s older Fighting Gobbler mascots, the HokieBird is a bit of a cross between a turkey and cardinal. However, the Hokies nickname, originating from an 1896 “spirit yell,” came before the introduction of the bird mascot (10). Perhaps one can say that a HokieBird is a Hokie, but a Hokie is not necessarily a HokieBird.

The moniker adopted long ago by the University of Kansas involves a similar situation. That institution’s nickname, the Jayhawks, has ties to a label adopted by the state’s mid-nineteenth-century political and paramilitary abolitionist groups. However, by the early twentieth century, notions of a large-beaked, shoe-wearing bird began taking root. Today, those precursors have evolved into the University of Kansas’s two costumed mascots, Big Jay and Baby Jay (11, 12). From a historical perspective, though, Jayhawks are arguably different than the school’s colorful representatives.

Of course, interesting histories can be found behind the nicknames and mascots at many other colleges. These teams are just a sample of several in the United States that are cheered on or fronted by popular fowl.

Sources:

  1. Rosenberg, B. “It’s all in the name: From Bulldogs to Horned Frogs, mascots help build institutional identity,” 8/13/2004. NCAA News: http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/NCAANewsArchive/2004/Association-wide/it_s%2Ball%2Bin%2Bthe%2Bname%2B-%2B9-13-04%2Bncaa%2Bnews.html.
  2. “The top mascots in college and professional sports,” 2/13/2005. USA Today: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/2005-02-13-tenworstjobs-mascots-yarbrough_x.htm.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “History: The McLaughlin years.” Chicago Blackhawks (official website): http://blackhawks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=46778.
  5. “Tommy Hawk.” Chicago Blackhawks (official website): http://blackhawks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=46626.
  6. “Written History: 1930s.” Detroit Red Wings (official website): http://redwings.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=43758.
  7. “The Pirate Parrot.” Pittsburgh Pirates (official website): http://pittsburgh.pirates.mlb.com/pit/fan_forum/mascot_index.jsp.
  8. “Biography.” The Famous Chicken (official website): http://www.famouschicken.com/biography.html.
  9. “Sebastian the Ibis, University of Miami.” Mascot Hall of Fame: http://www.mascothalloffame.com/virtual/past/index.html?staff_id=37.
  10. Cox, C.B. “What is a Hokie?” Virginia Tech (official website): http://www.vt.edu/about/traditions/hokie.html.
  11. “The Jayhawk.” University of Kansas (official website): http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/jayhawk/.
  12. “The Mascots.” University of Kansas (official website): http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/mascots/.