The Ubiquitous Bird: Thanksgiving Turkey Traditions

by Julie Hansbury

Thanksgiving. One of the most quintessential American holidays. Folks gather around the harvest table, mouths watering in anticipation. They lavish in its vibrant autumn palette — golden squash and glossy red apples, each reflecting the glint of the candelabra’s glittering flames; pumpkin pie like a copper disc sinking deep into the late November sky. Crimson cranberries tumble forth onto a tablecloth that’s practically a family heirloom. The bouquet of fall spices kindles the appetite. A distant relative, intoxicated by holiday cheer (and perhaps too much eggnog), looks over his shoulder with darting eyes and discretely dips a finger into the sweet potato casserole. Scurrying children (no doubt, daydreaming of the impending Christmas season) nab candy corn from a dish when no one is looking. The crisp autumn air invigorates the room and sets even the grumpiest of guests at ease. As the family bow their heads to give thanks for the bounty set out before them, a few sets of eyes remain fixed on the succulent centerpiece of this colorful cornucopia…the Thanksgiving turkey.

Harvest Celebration

Cultures have long celebrated the harvest with a ritual of giving thanks. The “thanksgiving” tradition dates back to the days of the English Reformation nearly five centuries ago. Under Henry VIII, special “Days of Thanksgiving” replaced the multitude of Catholic religious holidays. When things went exceptionally well in the Puritan world, people were called to give thanks on specially dedicated days. When the Pilgrims left England behind to start life anew in the New World, they transported with them their customs of thanksgiving. With their arrival to the Plymouth settlement late in the fall of 1620, the Pilgrims missed the harvest season —they would have to make due with what they had (as well as with what they stole from neighboring Native tribes). The Pilgrims’ first winter was devastating. Anyone who’s ever endured a New England winter knows how bitterly cold it can be, but this one was particularly taxing on both mind and body. By spring, only half of those who had landed on Plymouth’s shores had survived. Naturally, the first successful harvest in the fall of 1621 was accompanied by great thanksgiving and celebration.

The Pilgrims didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving in subsequent years. In fact, for the next two centuries, Thanksgiving was celebrated inconsistently and informally. In the following century, George Washington called for Americans to observe Thanksgiving, but still not for nationalization of the holiday. Fortunately, by the mid 19th century someone took it into their own hands to see this observance dedicated as a national holiday. After reading a personal account of what Pilgrim life was like in the New World, a woman by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned to formalize Thanksgiving once and for all. Finally, in the wake of great national division President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. At the time, it was celebrated on last the Thursday in November. Today, we celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November, kicking off the winter holiday (and shopping) season.

Today’s Thanksgiving menu — starring the turkey — differs from that of the first Thanksgiving. In his personal journal (lost but then reprinted in 1856), then colonist and future governor William Bradford noted that colonists hunted the wild turkeys that skulked the landscape of the Plymouth area. A similar recollection is provided by Edward Winslow, colonist and author of Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, which alludes to the presence of “wild fowl” at the feast. But he doesn’t specifically mention turkey. Given the Plymouth settlement’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, it’s far more likely that the Pilgrims supped on shellfish and seafood rather than our feathered friend. And evidence suggests that venison was actually on the menu. Fresh cranberries were more probable than canned cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie didn’t gain traction until sometime in the 19th century. This is all far off from today’s staples of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, cornbread, casseroles, and pumpkin pie (with a generous dollop of whipped cream). Many of these items were added to the Thanksgiving menu as the holiday evolved.

Even though turkey wasn’t the main course (let alone on the menu) at the first Thanksgiving, Americans remain preoccupied with this flightless bird. When Americans could easily chow down on duck, pork, chicken, beef, or lamb, nearly 90% of them choose this “wild fowl” instead. A few thoughts on this. For starters, turkey is practical. Larger than the average bird, one medium-sized turkey can feed about two average-sized families. Turkey is abundant in the United States. North Carolina ranks among the top six turkey-producing states. Turkey is popular. Depicted frequently in popular culture since the mid 19th century, the turkey has been a favorite character since its debut in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843. The turkey appears in other popular holiday films such as A Muppet Family Christmas, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. And twists on traditional turkey recipes are all the rage. With humble beginnings in the American South, deep-fried turkey is sweeping the country.

Symbolism and Tradition

The turkey is symbolic. On the shores of the New World all those centuries ago, the Pilgrims were sick and starving, seeking the promise of prosperity. This serves as a reminder that people in our own community go hungry each year. Local initiatives offer a beacon of hope to these people in need. Serving our community since 2011, Fairview Welcome Table provides nutritious meals each Thursday at no cost (donations of any kind welcome at the door) in order to offset the rising prices of nutritious food and the growing number of people who go hungry each year. Partnering with other local farms and organizations such as The Lord’s Acre and Harvest Market, each year Fairview Welcome Table offers a Thanksgiving-themed meal on the Thursday prior to the actual holiday. Executive Director and Chair Barbara Trombatore states that turkey is always included on the menu at this feast — in years past, turkey-stuffed crepes, turkey casserole, and pulled turkey barbecue have been featured.

Lastly, turkey is tradition. While it may not have made the final cut for the first Thanksgiving, it’s been a large part of American tradition for centuries. Many past presidents saw it as a unifying force during divisive times, and today they even go so far as to “pardon” one each year. Turkey rode the coattails of crusades to nationalize the Thanksgiving holiday.

Clearly, Thanksgiving traditions ebb, flow, and evolve over time. While turkey may not have been on the Pilgrims’s Thanksgiving platter, it will likely take center stage on millions of American tables this year and in the decades ahead.

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