A Holiday Symbol

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This week, every American family has been searching for recipes and preparing their best turkey for today’s Thanksgiving.

But the question remains, why is turkey the preferred bird for a holiday about gratitude?

Historian Troy Bickham wrote in the Conversation that there are not enough records showing what the Pilgrims and their Indigenous Wampanoag guests ate during their first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 in what is now Massachusetts.

The only firsthand record suggested that the Wampanoag brought a cornucopia of food, which included five deer and “fowle.” The latter could have been any number of wild birds, such as ducks and turkeys.

According to Bickham, turkey became a staple during the holiday thanks to the efforts of poet Sarah Hale in the mid-19th century.

As the editor of “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” she advocated for the establishment of a national holiday called “Thanksgiving and Praise,” drawing on the lore of the Pilgrims’ feast in 1621 and the assumption that they consumed turkey during that celebration.

Hale’s campaign faced challenges and took decades to gain momentum, partly due to a lack of enthusiasm among white Southerners. However, the absence of Southerners in Congress during the Civil War provided President Abraham Lincoln with an opportunity to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Media outlets, including Godey’s, played a crucial role in promoting the holiday and cementing the association between Thanksgiving and turkey. They featured recipes and menus that showcased the bird as the centerpiece of the festive meal. Turkeys were not only symbolic but also practical for serving big crowds because of their size and being cost-effective to produce.

The popularity of turkey was also influenced by England’s adoption of it as a favored Christmas dish in the mid-19th century, as depicted in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The novel portrayed a festive meal where the main character Ebenezer Scrooge replaced a meager goose with an enormous turkey, inspiring an idealized image of holiday meals.

Despite historical uncertainties about what the Pilgrims actually ate in 1621, the turkey had been served at celebrations in New England throughout the colonial period, contributing to its enduring association with Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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