Why Turkeys on Thanksgiving?

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The gathering of 52 English colonists and 90 Wampanoag Indians in 1621 marked the beginning of what we call Thanksgiving today. For the Christians who had endured a year of starvation and disease, it was a time to praise God for the abundance of the harvest. For the Wampanoags, it was a time to praise the Earth for the same.

Up until the early 1800s, the annual Thanksgiving ritual was a simple regional holiday celebrated solemnly through fasting and quiet reflection. It wasn’t until a writer named Sarah Josepha Hale began writing romantic, mythical accounts of the First Thanksgiving that things started to shift. In her magazine in 1824, she included recipes for roasted turkeys, bread stuffing, and pumpkin pie – all of the things that today’s holiday meals are likely to contain – and none of the things that would have actually been on the table of the First Thanksgiving.

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Even as the myths started by Hale began to permeate the culture’s consciousness, “turkey” was still not widely accepted as the quintessential Thanksgiving dish until the mid-20th century when the USDA, at the behest of the National Turkey Federation, bred a bird with white rather than dark flesh. Today, over 270 million turkeys are bred and killed for human consumption, 45 million of which are killed for Thanksgiving.

Hale shaped her traditions out of her ideals, and we should do the same without apology or guilt. That is the ultimate question for all of us: do our actions reflect our values? Do our traditions reflect our beliefs? Do our purchases reflect our ethics? After all, what’s the point in having values if we don’t manifest them in our behavior?

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