Why Is Turkey Eaten During Thanksgiving?


Now it’s no secret that the first thing that comes to anyone’s mind when we hear  the word Thanksgiving, we instantly think about a delicious roasted turkey sitting on top of the table. So it’s not a surprise that, in the United States, around this period of the year, more that 40 million turkeys are eaten. And this is just the average number.

Although there are many other traditional foods that are prepared for this special celebration, turkey roasting receives the biggest attention from all those in charge of the Thanksgiving meal. And the paradox is that, as popular as it is, the origin of turkey as a symbol of this celebration is not really known. This is why we need to go back in history to discover the real reason.

The Origin of Thanksgiving

In order to be able to understand its symbols, we need to check the origin of Thanksgiving and how it became an annual tradition in the US and Canada, but in other parts of the world as well. In English tradition, the celebration has its roots in the Protestant Reformation during the reign of Henry VII from the 16th century. In this period, it was decided to replace most of the religious holidays of the time with simple Days of Fasting or Thanksgiving Days, when people needed to praise the Divinity for the help received throughout the year or in a particular occasion.

This tradition was brought by the Pilgrims to the New World, which was to become the US and Canada of today. In 1621, the Puritans from the Plymouth Plantation held a celebration to thank for the good harvest of the year. New England is the first American place where traces of today’s Thanksgiving appeared. They also might have been influenced by a similar feast from Holland – the precursor of what is today known as Oktober Feest. However, the celebration did not become an annual thing until the second half of the century.

Turkey – the Symbol of Thanksgiving

So how this religious celebration got to be known today as Turkey Day?

Of course, the main reason for this stays in the fact that, among other dishes that were eaten during the first Thanksgiving Feasts, turkey was also prepared. Being so common on the North American continent, turkey became a regular food for Pilgrims. William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation informs us about the plenitude of these birds. At this time, however, these days were mainly dedicated to prayer and religious activity.

The Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin contributed to the popularization of this dish. Both of them referred to Thanksgiving and turkey in the same context: while Franklin wanted turkey (instead of the eagle) to become the national symbol, Hamilton encouraged the citizens to celebrate and to not refrain from eating this type of meat. However, it was not until the second half of the 19th century and Lincoln’s declaration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday that turkey became strictly connected with this celebration.

Another factor contributed to the popularization of this dish: literature. Many authors of the time (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sarah Josepha Hale to name just two) included in their literary work stories a delicious and carefully prepared roasted turkey that stays in the middle of all other dishes cooked for this holiday.

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