Thank You for the...Turkey!

by Anita Cheung

The beginning of November is always a time that heralds the most important festivities in the English-speaking world.  Christmas is just around the corner and although only the extremely organised will start making Christmas preparations in November, everyone is aware that Christmas truly is coming.  No matter what Christmas brings our way, there is always a special magic surrounding this day and its festivities as we take time to be with our nearest and dearest, share moments of laughter, presents and food and above all, remember that this is the day that we set aside to remember the birth of Christ.  And even if our Christmas is a little different - as the pandemic has taught us - even if there are empty places around the table as a result of those who have left this world, even if it is impossible to travel to be with our loved ones, Christmas remains a special time where we are able to bless those around us in whatever way our time and living conditions allow us.  However, just before we get to this wonderful season, my lovely friends ‘across the pond’ and most of yourselves will be thinking about Thanksgiving, another date with its origins in history and with its place firmly in the centre of every American (and Canadian) home.

Although my experience of Thanksgiving to date has been limited to pumpkin pie on two occasions (don’t leave the pumpkin pie near me or there won’t be enough to go around!!) and two Thanksgiving meals (one in England in the home of an American uncle and one with Canadian friends who I had lunch with the day after Canadian Thanksgiving), I know enough about this celebration to know that culturally it is the centre of every American calendar and family.  Not only is it a celebration and time of coming together, but it is also a day of remembrance with its origins rooted in the beginnings of modern day America.

The story of its origins is a curious one of puritans leaving their home for an unknown land and an unknown life.  When I try to cast my mind back to the age before air travel and technology, leaving everything to discover a new land did not mean what it does today.  Unknown adventures, trials and tribulations awaited them as well as the unfamiliar feelings of nostalgia, homesickness and doubt as to whether the right choice had been made.  And those emotions were reserved for the lucky ones who survived the arduous 66-day voyage across the Atlantic.  Although the first half of the voyage went relatively smoothly, the second half was fraught with storms and treacherous waters.  Several times the Mayflower just had to drift with the wind as putting up sails was too dangerous.  I can only imagine the seasickness that all must have suffered at one point or another!  Finally, on 9th November 1620, land was sighted and all knew that their arduous journey was over.  One year later, the pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth following their first harvest in the New World.  This feast which consisted of freshly killed deer, assorted wildfowl, cod, bass and flint (a native variety of corn harvested by the Native Americans, which was eaten as corn bread and porridge) reportedly lasted three days and was attended by 53 pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag, as recounted by Edward Winslow.

However, now there is a protagonist at every Thanksgiving meal (as well as every traditional Christmas dinner) and I started asking myself, how did it get there?  At what point in history did this protagonist slip in and take the spotlight?  As I endeavour to answer my own questions, we will wander through the pages of history to understand how and when the roast turkey became not only the protagonist of the Thanksgiving meal, but also of traditional Christmas celebrations.

The history of the turkey being the centre of the Thanksgiving table is rather an interesting one and not as simple as some stories relate.  It is well known that the turkey is a bird that is native to the Americas, but domesticated turkeys accompanied the Pilgrim Fathers on their voyage on the Mayflower.  Before the Pilgrim Fathers arrived on American soil, the Spanish had been discovering and conquering various nations of Central and South America for the previous 127 years.  Upon the arrival of Christopher Columbus and Hernando Cortes in the Americas, the Aztecs and the  Mayans were enjoying the meat of this plump bird.  Geographically, the Mayans covered an area including the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize and parts of the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas and the western part of Honduras and El Salvador. The Mayans used turkey in royal feasts where it was wrapped in corn tortillas and served as a delicacy.  The territory of the Aztecs was modern day Mexico and they domesticated the turkey, ate its meat and used its feather for ornamental purposes.

So upon discovery of this bird which did not exist in Europe at the time, both Christopher Columbus and Hernando Cortes took turkeys back to the royal court of Spain as part of their produce and specimens of what the New World contained.  From there, news about these new plants, (including tomatoes, potatoes, avocados and chocolate), products (including a lot of gold and silver) and birds spread across Europe.  It became very popular with the aristocracy who had previously dined on pheasant and peacock.  According to the Chronicles of the Kings of England, turkeys arrived in England in 1524.  In fact, King Henry VIII was the first king to make roast turkey part of his Christmas table whilst married to Anne Boleyn (mother of Queen Elizabeth I) from 1533 - 1536.  Prior to roast turkey being the centrepiece of the Christmas table, roast beef, roast goose and roast boar’s head were popular amongst the wealthy whilst the poor ate roast rabbit.  When the Pilgrim Fathers travelled on the Mayflower, they took some of the domesticated turkeys with them which in time were to interbreed with the wild turkeys that existed in America.  

However, back to my original conundrum - when and how did the turkey become the protagonist of both the Thanksgiving meal and traditional Christmas celebrations?  In 1827, the authoress Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a novel entitled Northwood in which a whole chapter is dedicated to the description of a New England Thanksgiving meal with a roasted turkey ‘placed at the head of the table’.  In a similar fashion, Charles Dickens wrote a very descriptive account of a traditional Victorian Christmas in his famous novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ which was published in 1843 in England.  Both literary accounts have had an impact on their respective populations and pay tribute to the power of the pen.

Sarah Josepha Hale was also instrumental in Thanksgiving being established as a national holiday as she believed that this would help unify the country and personally campaigned for this.  Although Thanksgiving has been celebrated nationally on and off since 1789, in 1863 her efforts were rewarded by President Abraham Lincoln proclaiming a ‘national day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens’, which was to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.  And with the hindsight that we now have, we can acknowledge that she was accurate in her thoughts and beliefs surrounding a national day to bring families and friends together.

Nowadays the traditional Thanksgiving dinner consists of roast turkey, turkey stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.  It is similar, but not identical to the traditional English Christmas dinner of roast turkey, turkey stuffing, roast potatoes, gravy, pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in bacon and roasted in the oven), cranberry sauce and roast vegetables followed by Christmas pudding.  In 2019 in the States alone, 40 million turkeys were consumed on Thanksgiving Day and in the United Kingdom, around 10 million turkeys are consumed every year as part of Christmas festivities.

So whether it is Thanksgiving or Christmas that you are looking forward to (or both), there is no doubt that there is a strong likelihood that roast turkey will be in the spotlight again.  This large bird lends itself perfectly to a shared meal and I hope that all readers will either be with friends and family or that someone will reach out and include the person who finds themselves in isolating circumstances.  As we all contemplate one or both celebrations, thankfulness is at the heart of both and given the ever present troubles of our world that we can see whenever we read a newspaper or switch the television on, each one of us has so much that we can be thankful for in our lives right where we are.  Happy Thanksgiving Day!

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