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Turkey is synonymous with Thanksgiving. But why?
The fowl has graced many a Thanksgiving table over the years and even a couple of them get pardoned every year. But the long-standing tradition of having Turkey, or even a vegetarian — I’m looking at you Tofurky — version, every year isn’t really what the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people in late 1621 would have eaten at what is considered the first Thanksgiving.
No, the bird that has become a staple on the dinner plate for many Americans on Thanksgiving has a different origin story.
Here’s a look at what was considered the first meal and how turkeys became a Thanksgiving tradition.
What was the first Thanksgiving meal?
In 1621, Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, were celebrating the harvest of the year with a feast and some good old shooting when Wampanoags, believing they were under attack, showed up ready for war.
In a letter written by Edward Winslow, an early Pilgrim, he states that the Wampanoags’ head chief Massasoit, “with some 90 men” joined the colonists for a three-day feast after that incident. After the group of Wampanoags decided to join the celebration, they also contributed to it.
The meat for the meal consisted of deer and some type of wild fowl, according to Britannica. Turkeys were native to the area, but many historians believe it was probably ducks or geese.
According to Britannica, the meal wasn’t really much more than a footnote in history remembered by Wilson. The tradition of harvest celebrations and “days of thanksgiving” have deep roots in European culture and the Christian religion and were fairly common.
Why turkey on Thanksgiving? Thank colonial era America to start
The holiday of Thanksgiving slowly started taking shape during the colonial era and that’s when turkey came to the dinner table in bulk.
Thanksgiving-type celebrations were common at the turn of the 19th century with many opting to put a turkey on the table instead of slaughtering a useful animal like a hen or cow that was producing other needed products, according to Britannica.
Turkeys at the time, and still today, were raised to be meat birds. This and their size — big enough to feed a family — made them a popular choice for large gatherings.
President George Washington even issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, but it wasn’t a permanent holiday, according to The Center for Legislative Archives.
But the turkey wasn’t synonymous with Thanksgiving just yet, because the Thanksgiving that we all know still wasn’t a thing.
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Sarah Josepha Hale, Godmother of Thanksgiving
The woman that brought you “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, is also the same woman who campaigned for Thanksgiving to be permanently on the last Thursday in November. Helping to cement the holiday, and the turkey, into history.
According to the Farmers Almanac, it was Hale that brought about the beginnings of cementing a single day as Thanksgiving in American culture.
It was right after the Civil War when Hale’s idea gained the attention it needed. In 1863, Hale put her stance on thanksgiving into an editorial and wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, urging him to make Thanksgiving Day a fixed national festival.
Hale’s idea became reality on Oct. 3, 1863, when Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the last Thursday of November to be the permanent National Thanksgiving Day.
How many turkeys are eaten during Thanksgiving?
A whopping 46 million turkeys are eaten each year as part of Thanksgiving feast around the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It doesn’t always have to be turkey
Whether you don’t eat meat, can’t stand the thought of turkey, are just plain tired of dealing with turkey leftovers every year or want to have something different. Nothing in the world says you have to present this bird each year.
Try something new and make your own tradition.