A Short History of the Thanksgiving Turkey

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Like many other festivities, the holiday of Thanksgiving usually includes a delicious, abundant meal. The classic Thanksgiving menu consists of dishes like mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, gravy, pumpkin pie, Brussels sprouts, and, of course, roast turkey. But how did turkey become the star of the table? It all started four centuries ago…

AN AUTUMN party 

The “first Thanksgiving” took place in the Plymouth colony (in modern-day Massachusetts) in 1621. The year before, a group of English colonists known as the Pilgrims had arrived there in search of a new home. Only half of them survived their first New England winter. Helped by some welcoming Native Americans of different tribes, they learnt some farming and fishing techniques. In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first successful corn harvest, they organised a celebratory feast with their Native American allies to thank God for it. However, no turkey was served here. According to the chronicle written by Pilgrim Edward Winslow, the menu included deer and “wild fowl”, which historians interpret as ducks or geese. The Pilgrims repeated the feast the following year, and thanksgiving celebrations became common practice in other New England settlements, too.


Before Thanksgiving was an official holiday, turkey had become a popular dish to serve on special occasions. The reasons behind this are that turkey was abundant in America, it was affordable, and, unlike cows or hens, it was raised to be slaughtered and eaten. Plus, it was big: one single turkey was enough to feed a whole family.

In 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale, in her novel Northwood, described a New England Thanksgiving feast with a roast turkey “placed at the head of the table.” Hale and other supporters started campaigning to establish Thanksgiving as an official national holiday. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln finally accepted the proposal, asking all Americans to take it as an opportunity to ask God to help all the victims of the ongoing Civil War.

pardoning the turkey

Sending the U.S. President a turkey as a present had become a common thing to do by the 20th century. And this tradition gave rise to another tradition: pardoning the turkey.

The first president to throw a ceremony to pardon a turkey from the Thanksgiving table was John F. Kennedy, in 1963. Pardoning the turkey became an “official” act in 1989, and from then on presidents have chosen one or two turkeys every year to be sent to a farm to live instead of becoming the Thanksgiving dinner.

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