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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A Salute to National Birds

quetzel

Several comments from my last post got me thinking. Most countries have national birds. But why? What do they matter? And which characteristics make for an effective one?

The custom is widespread, a heraldic vestige dating back to ancient empires and the once-flourishing practice of coats of arms. Countries as culturally diverse and far away from one another as Finland (the whooper swan), India (the Indian peafowl), and South Africa (the blue crane) give a nod to their avian preferences.1 As previously noted, the bald eagle was declared part of the United States’ official symbol in 1782, back when the country adopted its Great Seal.

Not all birds are sanctioned as national representatives; some have become accepted by consensus or through online voting. Such is the case with the United Kingdom’s European robin.2 It holds true as well for the common loon, a traditional but unofficial favorite of Canada. This is why Canadian Geographic’s National Bird Project is conducting an online poll for selecting the top vote-getter from a bevy of avian candidates. Thus far, the common loon is leading. The aim of this project, once complete, is to persuade the Canadian government to act, making the nomination official.

Identity Politics

Generally speaking, the national bird is a cultural favorite that demonstrates some symbolic significance. The chosen symbol usually connotes a sense of respect, which undoubtedly accounts for the popularity of the eagle, a large bird associated with strength and expansive vision, as well as the ability to soar to great heights. Yet much more seems required for becoming a national bird than mere symbolism alone.

Most national birds, from best I can tell, fulfill three qualities:

  • The avifauna are native species found throughout many regions of a nation (either during breeding or wintering periods, or both).
  • Their features (and/or cultural relevance) are exceptional or distinctive in some manner (e.g., color, size, song) in relation to other native birds, as well as to other national birds.
  • They inspire special devotion and graphical representation within the national domain.

Thus, the first factor explains why the African fish eagle is appropriate for Zambia and the gyrfalcon for Iceland but not vice versa. The second factor provides further justification for why the colorful keel-billed toucan of Belize, the call-carrying bare-throated bellbird of Paraguay, the enormous emu of Australia, and the diminutive kiwi of New Zealand are national birds. And the third factor involves the depiction of these creatures on flags, currency, stamps, and the like. Think of this as the public relations campaign aspect of celebrating a national bird.

Vexillology? Numismatics?

Those familiar with The Big Bang Theory sit-com, may remember the fictional video podcast series called “Fun with Flags.” For their nerdy online project, hosts Sheldon and his girlfriend Amy regularly shared factoids about vexillology. For those unfamiliar with the term, that’s the study of flags—and, yes, the duo’s stilted conservation was that comically technical.

Unfortunately, poor Sheldon suffers from ornithophobia. However, if he and Amy had managed to record a podcast examining birds on national flags, they would have noted that very few include avian images, only about a dozen or so. And, not surprisingly, roughly a third of those display raptors, mostly eagles. Among the most unusual of birds featured on flags are Dominica’s imperial Amazon parrot, Uganda’s grey-crowned crane, and Kiribati’s frigatebird.

Interestingly, while the Andean condor is considered the national bird of several South American countries,3 its presence graces only a single national flag, that of Ecuador. The raptor however is among several avifauna depicted simultaneously on both flags and currency, a group that also includes Mexico’s golden eagle4 and Papua New Guinea’s bird-of-paradise.5 By the way, here’s another word worthy of a Sheldon podcast: numismatics. If you were wondering, that’s the term for the study of currency.

National Treasures

Of all the national birds, the one that arguably occupies the most prominent status is Guatemala’s resplendent quetzal. Valued for its beautiful feathers, this creature was linked centuries ago to two major Mesoamerican deities, Quetzalcoatl and Quetzalpetlatl.6 In honor of the bird’s historical and cultural significance, the quetzal not only appears today on Guatemala’s flag, banknotes, and coins, but its name has been conferred upon the national monetary system.7 Thus, rather than dollars or pesos, financial transactions are made in quetzals.

A lot of countries, of course, display a variety of birds and other animals on their currency. Doing so is a way to increase awareness of native wildlife and encourage conservation.8 Featuring creatures on flags and as national birds, national mammals, national reptiles, etc., is another means of cultivating an appreciation of the many lifeforms and environments in our home countries and abroad. For me, these are the most important reasons for having a national bird or national any-other-creature.

Sources:

  1. Long, A. “National Bird Day – Time to Take Pride in Your Birds,” 1/5/2016. BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/national-bird-day-time-take-pride-your-birds.
  2. Mathiesen, K. “Robin Wins Vote for UK‘s National Bird,” 6/10/2015. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/10/robin-wins-vote-uk-national-bird-britain.
  3. Long, A.
  4. Armstrong, EA. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. p. 73. (Note: arguments based on Aztec legend do exist for the northern crested caracara over the golden eagle as the actual bird on Mexico’s flag.)
  5. Armstrong, EA. p. 150.
  6. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Metro Books, 2007. pp. 212–213.
  7. Bowers, AL, Perez, RC. Birds of the Mayas: A Collection of Mayan Folk Tales. Big Moose, NY: West-of-the-Wind Publications, 1964. p. 5.
  8. International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Voices: 5 Countries Putting All Their Money on Species,” 8/8/2014. National Geographic: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/08/5-countries-putting-all-their-money-on-species/.

 

Cartoon Quackers and Other Wacky Fowl

quackers_JML

Research on global humor indicates one critter has a knack for “quacking” folks up. This would come of little surprise, though, to the animators responsible for Donald and Daffy and other zany bird cartoon characters.

British Psychologist Richard Wiseman, whose studies have revealed the hilarious appeal of the small, waddling waterfowl, says that “if you are going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck” (1). Maybe folks are humored by the way it walks or sounds. Illustrators, of course, know that all sorts of birds—not just ducks—have the potential to bring levity to their comics and cartoons. Hence, we have Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy (a penguin), Buzz Buzzard, and Homer Pigeon (all from Walter Lantz Productions); as well as Heckle and Jeckle (a couple of mischievous magpies), Gandy Goose, and—another cartoon duck—Dinky Duck (all from Terrytoons).

The Ducks Have It

Donald and Daffy came onto the scene during the 1930s, but neither was the first cartoon bird on film. For example, a chicken who tries to frame Felix the Cat appeared in the 1928 animated short The Oily Bird (2). However, introduced a few years later in the 1934 Disney classic The Wise Little Hen, Donald made the bigger splash, quickly becoming the foremost major animated avian personality to appeal widely to audiences (3). And Daffy came along three years later in Warner Brothers’ Porky’s Duck Hunt (4). Both characters, the white feathered Donald with his naval uniform sans trousers and the oft unattired black drake Daffy, are now household names throughout the world.

“Being a duck, he likes water,” Walt Disney once explained regarding Donald’s choice of apparel. “Sailors and water go together” (5). By 1942, this irascible, half-clothed waterfowl had garnered Disney’s production studio an Oscar for the animated anti-Nazi propaganda short film Der Fuehrer’s Face (6). (For a detailed and intriguing account of “Donald Duck and Wartime Propaganda,” please check out the link to ArtLark’s blog article.) Of course today, Daisy Duck, Scrooge McDuck, Darkwing Duck, Huey, Dewey, Louie, and a waddling of other family members and friends join Donald, living in the fictional Duckburg. Furthermore, Disney has given flight to a few more fowl since the 1930s, characters such as Owl from Winnie the Pooh, Orville and Wilbur (sibling albatrosses) of The Rescuers movies, and Iago (a parrot) from the Aladdin franchise.

Meanwhile, Daffy and his pals are doing quite well. Today he rivals Bugs Bunny in popularity among the stable of cartoon characters at Warner Brothers. There he also joins other funny-bird personalities, such as Road Runner, Tweety Bird (a canary), Foghorn Leghorn (a rooster), and Henery the Chicken Hawk. I must admit that I have fond memories of watching all these characters on Saturday morning TV as a young child, especially the many escapades involving Daffy and Foghorn.

Still Drawing Applause

Over the years, cartoonists have brought all sorts of feathered entertainers to life. Decades ago, animated short films were common on the big screen, such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classics like Jerky Turkey and King-Size Canary. Pixar put its own stamp on this format in 2000 with the studio’s film For the Birds. However, most high-profile animated cinema today consists of feature-length flicks. Recent notable examples include the Penguins of Madagascar; the Antarctic adventures of penguins, skuas, and a puffin in the Happy Feet films; and an assortment of feathered personalities, such as macaws, a toucan, and a cardinal, in the Rio movies.

Not limited to just the motion picture business, birds are also featured in comic books and comic strips. The most iconic of these is Woodstock of Peanuts, a mainstay of newspaper comic sections. While clearly not as famous as Snoopy’s sidekick, Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck remains a cult favorite in his respective print medium. These are just the biggest names; there are many more. You’ll even find in today’s newspapers several polarizing examples, among them the title character of Mallard Fillmore, a politically conservative comic strip, and Sparky the Wonder Penguin of the left-leaning This Modern World (7).

By the way, comics that delve into political and social issues are nothing new. Pogo, Bloom County, Shoe, and many others, entered that territory long ago. One of the main figures in the swampland setting of Pogo, of course, was an owl (8). Opus the penguin graduated from Bloom County to land a couple of comic-strip sequels (9). Out of these strips, only Shoe still runs in syndication today. It features a cast of avian-anthropomorphized characters, most notably a newspaper-industry osprey named “Cosmo.”

The End                                                                                                                        

As you can see, all sorts of birds have animated cartoon history. Waddling ducks quacking about are wildly funny. But penguins, chickens, and canaries are more than capable of eliciting their share of chuckles. Don’t expect cartoon birds to flock south anytime soon.

Meanwhile, as the curtains close here briefly, please stay safe and have fun. In other words, that’s all folks—‘til two weeks from now. For those of you in the U.S., have a wonderful upcoming Memorial Day!

Sources:

  1. Wiseman, R. “Fun Facts from LaughLab,” RichardWiseman.com: http://www.richardwiseman.com/LaughLab/Documents/funFacts.html.
  2. Crafton, D.C. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. pp. 329, 331.
  3. Gabler, N. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. p. 201.
  4. Hunter, M. “What Makes Daffy Duck? A History of Daffy Duck,” TooLooney: http://toolooney.goldenagecartoons.com/daffy.htm.
  5. Gabler, N. p. 201.
  6. Online Awards Database, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: http://www.oscars.org.
  7. Booker, M.K. (Editor). Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2014. pp. 1181–1182.
  8. Booker, M.K. pp. 719–721.
  9. Booker, M.K. pp. xxx (introduction), 1501.