Many Americans struggle to even imagine celebrating Thanksgiving without a deceased turkey on the table. Most don’t realize that in fact it’s a completely invented ‘tradition,’ woven from thin air about 200 years after the colonial celebration this holiday commemorates. The idea (surprise!) caught on like wildfire among industrial turkey producers; and the rest, as they say, is history. Modern Thanksgiving customs show clearly how we make up our own ‘traditions’ to follow – so why not create new ones, better suited to our own values of compassion and nonviolence?
In the Beginning
What we now call Thanksgiving began with writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who campaigned for 40 years to make it a national holiday. At the time, in the early 1800s, Thanksgiving was considered a small regional holiday. Communities celebrated it differently in different parts of the country, at various times of the year. Sometimes the holiday was observed with feasting, but more often it was marked by solemnity, fasting, and spiritual reflection. When a meal was included in these regional holidays, menus varied broadly based on which foods were locally and seasonally available to participants.
Some historians and writers argue that the holiday originated, at least in some regions, as a custom celebrating successful genocidal activities:
The colonists were contemptuous of the Indians, who they regarded as uncivilized and satanic heathens, and the fragile early peace between Native Americans and the early settlers would soon unravel in a horrific manner in what is now Mystic Connecticut, where the Pequot tribe was celebrating their own Thanksgiving, the green corn festival. In the predawn hours, settlers– not the Pilgrims, but a band of Puritans– descended on their village and shot, clubbed and burned alive over 700 native men, women and children.
This slaughter, according to Robert Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was the real origin of Thanksgiving– so proclaimed in 1637 by Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop in gratitude for God’s destruction of the defenseless Pequot village. Thereafter massacres of the Indians were routinely followed by “days of thanksgiving.”
Whatever it’s true origins, Sarah Hale viewed Thanksgiving as a much-needed holiday to bring communities and families together; she envisioned a day of helping the poor, a time to do good works in order to ”make every American home the place of plenty and of rejoicing.” She lobbied tirelessly through five presidential administrations to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. In the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln embraced Hale’s vision of a fall holiday to bring people together: he issued the presidential proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday on November 26, 1863.
Despite heavy glossing-over of the historical ins and outs of exactly who hosted the first Thanksgiving, and why, today the holiday is generally said to commemorate the three-day harvest feast shared by Wamanoag tribesfolk and surviving Plymouth colonists in 1621. What was on the menu, for that feast?
There is no evidence for turkey, it turns out, only some kind of wild fowl– likely geese and duck– venison, corn mush and stewed pumpkin, or traditional Wampanoag succotash. Cranberries, though native to the region, would have been too tart for desert, and sweet potatoes were not yet grown in North America, though grapes and melons would have been available.
The colonists also wouldn’t have had flour for pie crusts, or sugar for pies.
Where did the food modern Americans think of as ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving fare come from? How did turkeys, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie land this gig, when they had nothing to do with it whatsoever? Excellent question!
Two Words: Revisionist History
With the very best of intentions, and with noble causes in mind — “Our busy, wealth seeking people require to have days of national festivity, when the fashion and the custom will call them to the feast of love and thanksgiving,” she wrote in 1857 — Hale used her position as writer and women’s magazine editor to construct ready-made ‘holiday traditions.’ After all, as one writer aptly observes,
A new holiday required more than just legislation, but also cultural traditions and beliefs. In the pages of Godey’s [Lady's Book], Hale supplied them each fall, barraging her female readers with Thanksgiving recipes for turkeys and pumpkin pies along with heartrending stories of “old-fashioned” Thanksgivings, in which families triumphed over adversity to come together round the table.
Turkey and pumpkin pie were much-loved dishes in New England at that time, among Hale’s reading audience.
Is there any evidence at all that turkey, if not pie, played some small role in that 1621 ‘first Thanksgiving?’ As summarized by vegan author and nonviolence advocate Colleen Patrick-Goudreau,
Everything we know about the first Thanksgiving comes from two sources: a letter by Edward Winslow dated December 1621, and a book by William Bradford written twenty years after the actual events took place. His book was stolen during the Revolutionary War and didn’t reappear until 1854. In his letter, Edward Winslow wrote, “Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might, after a more special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.”
… In his book, William Bradford mentions that the colonists killed wild turkeys during the autumn season; he doesn’t say specifically that wild turkeys were killed for the first Thanksgiving. Although his book gives clues as to what was on this first menu, it disappeared until the mid-nineteenth century, so it didn’t have any influence on how Thanksgiving was celebrated.
Notice that Bradford’s letter makes no mention of turkeys at all; fowlers’ prey, in that place and at that time, was most likely wild ducks and geese. Also note that the fowling was an afterthought, to make the occasion ‘more special’ — the harvest was in, the feast was on, and they were rounding it out with some extra flair. In Bradford’s book, written twenty years after the event in question and completely absent while Hale was publishing ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving recipes, turkeys are mentioned generally — but not in connection with the holiday.
From There to Here
Even with Hale’s promotion of turkey as the ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving menu centerpiece, it wasn’t widely accepted as the quintessential Thing To Do on Thanksgiving until the mid-20th century. The up-and-coming industrial animal producers saw a market niche; so they bred the Beltsville White to fill it, at the behest of the National Turkey Federation. With new methods like intense confinement, automation, and all the rest of the animal-factory paradigm, they were able to crank out huge amounts of cheap turkey meat — and it was ‘pretty’ to consumers, too, not like those normal wild turkeys with dark pinfeathers and A-cup chests.
Obviously, the turkey industry marketed their product very successfully, embedding it firmly in America’s cultural consciousness as the be-all end-all Thanksgiving Whatchado.
From Here to… Wherever!
Traditions are fluid; as we see in the history of the Thanksgiving holiday, they are absolutely not fixed objects. Dead turkeys on the table don’t make the holiday, any more than they did back before Sarah Josepha Hale and the National Turkey Federation worked so hard to insert them there.
We always invent our cultural traditions, over time; that’s not a bad thing, it’s simply the way traditions work. We pick and choose what traditions we want, and leave the rest behind. We no longer live in a society where it’s considered appropriate to celebrate successful genocidal massacres. No one I know plans to fast this year, in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday. Traditions evolve, to reflect shifting individual and cultural values.
Eating turkeys at Thanksgiving is a completely made-up tradition. It represents nothing more than the well-intentioned fancy of Sara Hale, propagated by the marketing departments of early industrial turkey producers. Those are incredibly weak reasons to support the persistent animal cruelty, unnecessary violence, and environmental destruction intrinsic to the process of putting what was once a turkey on your table!
If you value compassion and sustainability, this holiday season consider a truly traditional approach to your holiday menu: embrace the customs you want, and reinterpret those that no longer fit. You’re not bound to honor social traditions rooted in atrocity — just as we’ve left behind the horrible custom of celebrating mass murder of Native Americans, we can choose to leave behind the cruelty and optional violence that the turkey industry has sold us as ‘tradition.’
I am deeply thankful to live in a land of abundance, where I can easily prepare a joyful feast without resorting to killing anyone. In this land of plenty, I am grateful for the chance to build traditions within my own family that reflect our values of compassion and nonviolence. I see no reason to cling mindlessly to Sarah Hale’s vision of what should or shouldn’t be on my table, as I celebrate a day of thanks.
Image credit: Creative Commons photo by jakesmome.