For many Americans, the menu on Thanksgiving is pretty familiar. Though not everyone eats the same things, there are some foods that have nonetheless become staples of the holiday. Items like cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie will all likely be served. And of course, there’s the turkey. But have you ever stopped to think about why we eat the things we do on Thanksgiving? Like take the turkey in particular. Why this bird, and not some other form of fowl? Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?
Was Turkey Served at the First Thanksgiving?
The first Thanksgiving is traditionally considered to be a three-day harvest feast that took place back in 1621 between Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and members of the Wampanoag tribe. Unfortunately, we know very little about this event, as there are only two surviving eyewitness accounts of what happened.
While turkeys were certainly common in the region at the time, there is actually no explicit evidence to suggest it was served during that first Thanksgiving. Edward Winslow, who documented the celebration in a letter sent back to England, made no reference to turkeys. A first-hand account by colonial governor William Bradford does mention that “besides waterfowl, there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.” This seems to imply that perhaps turkeys were there, but not as a main dish. In fact, Bradford never specifies that turkey was actually eaten at the feast.
We do know that foods like waterfowl, venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, and squash were on the menu. And while one could perhaps assume turkey was consumed, we can’t say for sure.
Why Do We Eat Turkey On Thanksgiving?
While it would be impossible to pinpoint one specific reason for why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving, there are a few explanations for how the bird became such a critical part of the holiday.
It first should be noted that Thanksgiving did not just become a thing after that 1621 celebration. While regional celebrations of the harvest were common throughout America (and throughout history), Thanksgiving itself wouldn’t gain popularity until the 19th century. A few presidents, including George Washington, even proclaimed national days of Thanksgiving, but it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 that it became official.
Part of the reason Lincoln would ultimately declare Thanksgiving a holiday was because a few years prior, in 1856, William Bradford’s journals were reprinted after having being previously lost. Many in America sought to rekindle the spirit of the harvest celebration described by Bradford. So the idea of a national Thanksgiving holiday began to gain traction.
Because Bradford mentioned hunting wild turkeys, and given that the turkey is native to North America (it was once considered a candidate for America’s national bird, afterall) citizens seemed to have jumped on the Turkey train. Even Lincoln himself, shortly after his election, was said to have started a annual tradition of hosting an unofficial Thanksgiving dinner that featured roast turkey, allegedly his favorite meal.
Other Reasons For Why We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving
But there are other, possibly even more telling, reasons for why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving.
For one, turkeys are big and generally useless – and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. But think about some other possible animals. Other birds, like ducks or pheasants, are too small to feed a large group. You’d need to sacrifice many just to feed one family. Cows and chickens, on the other hand, are good meat sources, but they also make milk and lay eggs – giving them an extra value. And then there is pork, which was very common at the time and not necessarily viewed as a celebratory animal. So turkeys, being large, easy to hunt, and used only for food, became to main course of choice for many.
We also can’t deny the impact pop culture of the era might have had on turkeys becoming a holiday favorite. In 1843, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was first published. Recall that at the end of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge, having been changed into a new man overnight, sends a giant turkey to his overworked clerk, Bob Cratchit, on Christmas Day. Some have credited this book as helping popularize the turkey as a must-have holiday meal, especially in the upper levels of society.
Whatever the true reasons, we’re thankful turkey has become such an integral part of Thanksgiving and the holiday season.
What will be on your Thanksgiving dinner table this year? Let us know in the comments below. And make sure to click here to find other Thanksgiving facts you can share around the table. Or, serve yourself some puns by playing the quiz below.