Considered by many to be the kick-off to the holiday season, Thanksgiving has become the modern-day harvest end festival celebrating history, togetherness, and of course, giving thanks for the blessings of the year. While the American festival is perhaps the most iconic, it isn’t the only place where Thanksgiving is a holiday. In addition to the U.S., Thanksgiving is also celebrated in Canada, Liberia, some Caribbean Islands, the Philippines, and in Leiden, a city in the Netherlands where many of the Puritans began their journey. While not all Thanksgiving ceremonies held worldwide are related to the colonization of North America, they all have a common thread expressing thankfulness.
The American festival itself has changed dramatically over the years. It became an official holiday as part of efforts to bring the country together during the Civil War and the celebration saw itself changed again during the Great Depression and World War II. The menu commonly associated with Thanksgiving today would have been completely unfamiliar to those who landed at Plymouth Rock. That is, if you believe the first American Thanksgiving was celebrated there. Virginia's Jamestown Colony, as well as celebrations by the Spanish in San Elizario, Texas and St. Augustine, Fla., claim to be the real first Thanksgiving. The history of Thanksgiving as well as how we think of it in modern terms can be found in the histories of the words we most associate with the day.
A symbol of bountiful and plentiful harvests, the cornucopia has become synonymous with fall and Thanksgiving celebrations. Many have used the cornucopia as Thanksgiving decor, particularly as a centerpiece. It also features prominently as a symbol of plenty for the coats of arms of several countries as well as on the seals of the states of Idaho and North Carolina as well as the former’s state flag. This horn overfilled with food has ancient roots, featuring prominently in the origin stories of ancient Greek mythology.
The word cornucopia comes from the Latin conu copiae meaning “horn of plenty,” later translated into Late Latin as cornucopia and then beginning to appear in English in the same form around the 1590s. While the term itself is Latin, the Romans themselves took this concept from the Greeks, borrowing and then Latinizing the Greek creation myth surrounding the ascendancy of the god Zeus.
According to the myth, Kronus, leader of the primordial gods known as the Titans, heard a prophecy that one of his children would usurp him so naturally decided the best remedy was to eat all of his children. Terrified at what was happening, his sister-wife Rhea managed to hide one away - Zeus - in a cave on Mt. Ida on the island of Crete. There, the child was attended to by her handmaidens, including the goat Amaltheia whose Greek name means “nourishing goddess.” The goat fed Zeus with her milk, but the strong child accidentally broke off one of her horn. In turn, the horn became the first cornucopia, spilling for an endless amount of food.
A second origin story involves the hero Heracles ripping a horn off the river god Achelous, which turned into the cornucopia. The horn of plenty came to be associated with several Greek and Roman goods including their earth goddess Gaia/Terra, Hades/Pluto god of the underworld and riches, Fortuna the goddess of luck, Abundantia the Roman goddess of abundance, and Annona the minor goddess of Rome’s grain supply. The Roman imperial cult also often featured the cornucopia as a symbol of the pax Romana and the emperors.
While there were no cornucopia’s at the first Thanksgiving, the symbol was used in advertisements encouraging settlers to come to the New World or to move westward as America began to expand, symbolizing the fruitfulness of the land to be settled. The original ice cream cone - the waffle cone served at the St. Louis’ World’s fair in 1904 - was also originally known as the World’s Fair Cornucopia. Over the years, the cornucopia has become associated with the autumn harvests and harvest type festivals, including Thanksgiving. While a horn-shaped basket has overtaken the traditional goat’s horn in modern-day decor, the cornucopia remains alive and well as a symbol of prosperity, wealth, and abundance just as it did in ancient times.
Over the years, cranberry sauce - or relish depending on what part of the country you’re from - has become an integral part of Thanksgiving meals. In fact, cranberries are one of the few foods we still associate with Thanksgiving today that were probably consumed at the first Thanksgiving. While the cranberry is native to North America, the origins of this word are not. In fact, they show us how this wild plant became domesticated and turned into a modern-day superfood beloved the world over.
The cranberry was grow in North America, particularly New England, long before European settlers ever arrived. In addition to eating the berries, the Narragansett people - a member of the larger Algonquin nation - were known to flavor their pemmican with cranberries as well as use the berries to create red dyes. They called the berries sasemineash and were probably the ones to first introduce the Massachusetts colonists to the fruit. Other Algonquian groups, like the West Abenaki, called these same berries popkwa. The Cape Cod-based Pequots and the South Jersey-based Leni-Lenape tribes named them ibimi or “bitter berry.”
The first English reference to these berries comes in 1550. A Plymouth colonist, Mary Ring, auctioned off a petticoat she had dyed with the berries in 1633. At this time, the berries were referred to by English colonists as “bearberries” because they were a favorite food of local berries. By the 16540s, the English speakers had adopted the word from their Dutch and German neighbors in New England. When settling the area, the Dutch and German had started referring to these berries as kraanbere, meaning “crane berries” in Middle Low German. It is unsure why they adopted this name, but it soon became Anglicized as “cranberries.”
The first recipe for cranberry sauce appears in a Pilgrim cookbook of the New World in 1663 and four years later, New Englanders would send a ten barrells of the berries to King Charles. The first record of cranberry sauce being eaten with turkey comes from the wedding banquet of Capt. Richard Cobb and Mary Gorham in 1669. The North American berries started becoming a steady European import by the 1680s. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the 1800s that the cranberry began to be domesticated and cultivated as an agricultural crop rather than just harvested in the wild.
Cultivation of the cranberry is largely credited to American Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall, who began raising the fruit in the town of Dennis on Cape Cod around 1816. By the 1820s, he was shipping cranberries as far away as New York City and Europe as well as closer to home in Boston. Eli Howes would developed the Howes variety in 1843 while Cyrus Cahoon planted the “Early Black” variety in 1847. By the late 1800s, many small-scale cranberry farms were being bought up by big food manufacturing companies who then began marketing the product outside of regional areas in the early 1900s.
It is likely that Native Americans brought cranberries with them to eat and share at the first Thanksgiving festivities, and it is known that America’s were producing cranberry related recipes as far back as the late 1600s. However, it wasn’t until the 1900s that cranberry sauce became a fixture of the Thanksgiving table. Largely a local dish until the late 1800s, it was in 1912 that companies began marketing cranberries further afield thanks to new preservation techniques. Ocean Spray began canning ready-to-serve cranberry jelly that year and began marketing them as part of the Thanksgiving meal because it was around the time the cranberries were harvested. When cranberry farming shifted from dry to wet in the 1930s, the cranberry became more commercially available and cheaper.
The most popular method of cranberry cultivation is growing the crop in wetlands with bogs being flooded during the autumn to make the harvest easier and then again in the winter to protect the soil from low temperatures. The bright red color associated with cranberries is due to the amount of sunlight the berries absorb when fully ripe. Those that do not mature stay pale pink or white. While most cranberries are wet picked from flooded bogs, somewhere between 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. crop is dry-picked, which entails higher labor costs and yields less berries but is believed to yield better quality of berries. While cranberries themselves are served red, cranberry juice is typically made from mature berries that haven’t been sunned enough to obtain the classic dark red color.
The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of cranberries - beating out Canada and Chile - but it’s Wisconsin and not Massachusetts that is the biggest producer in the U.S. Approximately 65 percent of U.S. cranberries are grown in Wisconsin. The Badger State is followed in production by Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington state as cranberries also flourish natively in the Pacific Northwest. Americans consume some 400 million pounds of cranberries a year, 20 percent during Thanksgiving week. Quebec is the second largest producer in North America and the first in Canada.
Cranberries have also gained popularity in recent years as a “super food,” though their health effects aren’t exactly new. Sailors often used them to treat scurvy going back to the 1700s. Cranberries have been known to help with urinary tract infections, prevent kidney stones, improve the cardiovascular and immune systems, and possibly have ingredients that can prevent and fight cancer. Rich in fiber and antioxidants but low in sugar, cranberries are also believed to have benefits toward blood sugar regulation.
Just like the cornucopia, the gourd has become a favorite type of decoration for the fall season. And just like the cranberry, gourds have also become fixtures at the Thanksgiving table with pumpkins, squash and even types of cucumbers and melons making their way onto the dinner table. Over the years, gourds have become much more than a favorite food harvested in the fall. They have been used in numerous music instruments, become part of creation myths, and have even become part of a variety of craft projects from jewelry to dishes to utensils to strainers and scrubbing sponges.
The etymological origin of the gourd is much more straightforward than the origin of the vegetable itself. The word is believed to have come from the Latin cucurbita meaning “gourd,” and this Latin term is still used in the scientific name of many gourd species. The Latin cucurbita is possible related to the Latin word cucumis meaning “cucumber,” which its a type of gourd. In addition to eating gourds, the Romans dried and excavated their shells to use as scoops and dippers. The Latin curcurbita came into Old French as coorde and around 1300 was morphed in the Anglo-French gourde before eventually coming into its modern spelling minus the “e.”
Gourds are believed to have originated in what is present-day southern Africa but were distributed through the world possibly before continental drift shifted the continents too far apart. Gourds were being cultivated in Peru as far back as 13000 BCE and in Thailand as far back as 11000 BCE, showing how far the food had spread by that time. A second theory holds that African and Asian groups domesticated gourds separately with Asian groups bringing the gourds to the Americas via the immigration of the Bering Land Bridge some 12,000 to 13,000 years before present. Gourds may have possibly been one of the first domesticated plant species and poisonous varieties are even mentioned in the Bible by Elisha.
Just as gourds were used for eating many cultures also found them useful in a variety of other ways. When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they found Native Americans were using bottle gourds as birdhouses to attract bird species known to serve as natural bug control for agriculture. Almost every culture on earth has used gourds to make instruments ranging from drums to wind instruments to stringed instruments. The Latin American percussion instrument known as a guior, maracas, the Indian sitar, and African instruments like the shekere, axatse, and caxixi are all gourd-based.
Gourds include a variety of vegetables under the same name like squash, zucchini, pumpkins, and cucumbers. The more commonly eaten gourds are those found in the New World as they tend to be less bitter and smoother than Old War varieties. While some gourds are harvested in late summer or even the spring, the vast majority are ready for harvest in the autumn or early winter. And while gourds have a wide variety of shapes and colors, it is interesting to note that the pumpkins and squash we tend to serve at our dinner tables are actually rather closely related. Even watermelons are believed to have some gourd genes, the result of crossbreeding between citrus fruits and gourd varieties. While red is the dominant watermelon color, the occasional watermelon with a yellow inside hints at this past.
While the harvest period has lost some of its significance as many of the world’s cultures drift from agrarian societies to those focused on manufacturing, there is still a long tradition of festivals celebrating the end of the growing season and the coming of winter. Halloween, All Saints Day, Thanksgiving, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Samhain, and Diwali all have roots in ancient harvest festivals. Likewise, communities across the world celebrate more secular harvest festivals that are associated with prominent local crops like apple festivals, pumpkin festivals, cranberry festivals, pecan festivals, and Oktoberfests, which have long been associated with the cultivation of grain.
The word harvest has ancient roots, possibly coming from the Proto-Indo European word kerp- meaning “to gather, pluck, harvest.” This word became the Proto-Germanic harbitas meaning the same thing and gave us the Old Saxon hervist, Old Dutch herfst, Old German herbst, and Old Norse haust, all of which interchangeably meant “harvest” and “autumn.” This Proto-Germanic term also gave us the Old English hærfest, defined as “one of the four seasons between August and November.” The sense of harvest as a verb, such as to harvest crops, came in around 1400 from the noun and referred not only to crops but also wild animals in the sense of hunting. By 1946, cells were also being “harvested” for research purposes.
In addition to often marking the changeover between the warmer months and the colder months, the harvest season is also historically the most labor-intensive part of the growing season - even with modern mechanization. As a result, harvest festivals became a part of regional secular and religious festivals the world over. In Britain, harvest festivals are still celebrated in September, often as part of religious rites or church events. Lammas was the traditional Catholic harvest festival, celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season on Aug. 1. Lammas literally means “loaf mass” and was often celebrated in Great Britain by farmers giving freshly made bread to their local churches for use in communion. By contrast, festivals like Samhain and Halloween were developed to celebrate the end of the harvest.
The first Thanksgiving festival held in 1621 was less about the harvest and more about being thankful for being safely transported to the New World and surviving afterwards. Festivals of thanksgiving were known throughout Great Britain and are still held. One of the events of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee was a religious worship service of thanksgiving. Up until the late 1800s, most communities in America and Britain had what they called a “harvest supper,” where those who helped in the harvest shared in a meal together. In the Americas, this was replaced by Thanksgiving, which had become a secular, public holiday in the mid 1800s.
Canada’s Thanksgiving holiday is more in line with the traditional harvest festival than the U.S. version. Held in October at the close of the harvest season - typically the same day America celebrates Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day - the Canadian thanksgiving was designed to correspond to harvest-end festivals held in Britain and France. Held on the second Monday in October, many Canadians take the whole three-day weekend to celebrate. The Canadian festival traces its roots back to feasts of thanks held by English explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578 and one by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1604. The Canadian Day has also seen more changes than the American one with the holiday’s present celebration date only set in 1957.
While Americans tend to associate pilgrims with the religious group that settled much of New England, there is actually quite a bit of difference between pilgrims and puritans. Likewise, pilgrims aren’t just those who came to New England for religious reasons. Pilgrimage is an ancient tradition that still lasts into the modern day and is a part of numerous religions around the world. Often times, the physical journey to a place of religious power is supposed to echo an inner spiritual journey the pilgrim is undertaking.
The word pilgrim has its origins in the Proto-Indo-European word agro meaning “field” that became the Latin word ager meaning “country, land.” When added with the Latin prefix per meaning “beyond,” this became the Latin word peregre or peragri meaning “from abroad.’ Eventually, this term for someone from abroad became peregrinus meaning “a foreigner.” As Latin evolved into Late Latin, it became pelegrinus before entering Old French as both pelerin and peregrin, both of which mean “pilgrim, crusader, foreigner, stranger.” The word originally came into English around 1200 as pilegrim before acquiring its modern spelling. The English Puritans who founded the Plymouth Colony often referred to themselves as pilgrims as well as separatists, but it wasn’t until around 1790 that the term “pilgrims” began to be applied to them by others.
Religious pilgrimage is a concept that is found in most religious throughout the world, a spiritual journey aimed to provide healing or some sort of spiritual revelations. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all consider Jerusalem a holy site and therefore members of all three religions often visit the area as part of a holy journey. Members of the Baha’i faith also make religious journeys to sites in Iran and Israel. For Buddhists, sites of the Buddha's birth in Nepal and enlightenment in India are destinations for sacred destinations. Taoists often participate in the Baishatun Mazu Pilgrimage while practitioners of Hinduism often visit sites across India associated with various gods.
One of the most famous pilgrimages might be the annual hajj thousands of Muslims participate in each year to Mecca. More than 20 million Shi’ite Muslims also travel to Mashhad each year. Christian religions also have their own pilgrimage, such as the famed trip to Canterbury depicted in The Canterbury Tales. Many Catholics visit sites like the Vatican or healing sites like that at Lourdes. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints often visit sites associated with the Mormon pioneers as well as historic sites in the religion like Joseph Smith’s home in Palmyra, N.Y., and the Kirtland Temple in Ohio.
While pilgrims and puritans are often considered synonymous today, they were actually members of two different groups. The pilgrims were the ones who settled the Plymouth Colony and arrived on the Mayflower. They had a much different political and religious agenda than the Puritans, who was arrived later to found the Massachusetts Bay colony. The pilgrims had largely lived in the Dutch Netherlands before coming to the New World, many of whom had fled there in the wake of the Marian persecutions against protestantism. The Pilgrim Saints, as they referred to themselves, also had no wish to supplant or conquer the Native Americans who were already living in the area, a sharp contrast to the group that would settle Massachusetts Bay. While both groups were seeking the reformation of the church, the Pilgrim Saints were not the type to start executing people for not agreeing with them. And while the Puritans were religious pilgrims of a sort, they had different goals than those settling in Plymouth.
We have an image of the pilgrims who settled Plymouth as being the same as the latter Puritans who would settle much of New England. While both groups were English and wore the black drab clothing and buckled hats commonly fashionable among the religious of the period, the two groups actually had rather different beliefs, settled the New World at different times, and had different goals for how they wanted to use this settlement. Both groups were influential in the founding of what is now Massachusetts as well as New England at large, but if you’re looking to recreate the First Thanksgiving, you won’t find any Puritans at the table.
The word puritan most likely comes from the word purity, which has its origins in the Latin purus meaning “clean, pure, unmixed, chaste or undefiled.” This became the Late Latin puritatem then the Old French purte and purete meaning “simple truth” before becoming the English purity around 1200. The word Puritan appeared in the 1560s as a person who was in opposition to the present hierarchy of the Anglican church. By the following decade, the definition had been revised to mean “a person within the Anglican church who seeks further reformation.” By the 1590s, the lowercase puritan began to refer to anyone who was overly strict in matters of morals and religion. The specific doctrine of Puritanism didn’t appear in the English language until the 1570s to specify those within the Anglican church who sought further Protestant reforms to better separate the Anglican Church from the Catholic Church. The term puritanical first appeared around 1600, largely as a disparaging term for those who were overly moral and strict and felt that their personal beliefs should be followed by everyone else.
When creating the church so he could divorce his first wife, Henry VIII borrowed a lot of ceremony and church hierarchy from the Catholic church. Rather than reinvent the wheel, he took what he liked from the Catholic Church and took out the parts that were inconvenient to him. However, by the time of his son Edward VI, there were many seeking further reformation to make the church more in line with Protestant ideals and separate it further from those of the Catholic Church. Many wanted to make the church in lie with more Reformed theology such as the Calvinists. It was out of this desire for more reformation that the Puritan movement grew in England in the 1500s and 1600s, even becoming the dominant religious force during Cromwell’s ill-fated Protectorate.
There are several differences between the pilgrims who celebrated the First Thanksgiving and the Puritans who remodelled New England in their own image. The pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Colony in 1620 while the Puritans arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628. The pilgrims were religious separatists, wanting their own Protestant church while the Puritans were technically members of the Anglican Church but felt that this version of the church was not reformed enough from its Catholic ways. While the pilgrims were content to live alongside native groups, Puritans believed that it was their God-given destiny to settle North America and therefore any natives who didn’t convert to their ways of thinking were enemies of god and could be killed as a result.
A type of gourd, squash is one of the many fall-harvested foods that has found its way onto the Thanksgiving dinner table for families across America. Used both in decor and as a side dish, a lot of people tend to think of the yellow crookneck or straightneck varieties when they think of squash. However, there are a lot more varieties of squash out there, many of which are vegetables we know under different names. And while the name is the same, the vegetable that now features on dinner tables across the U.S. has nothing to do with the popular racquet game of the same name.
The word squash referring to the food came into English in the 1640s from the Algonquian-speaking Narragansett people who introduced it to the English-speaking settlers of New England. The word originates from two Algonquian words: askut meaning “green, raw, uncooked” and asquash meaning “eaten.” When put together, this became the word askutasquash meaning “Things that may be eaten raw.” While this may have been more of an instruction or advice for what things could and couldn’t be consume certain ways, the English settlers apparently thought it referred to the gourds themselves and shortened the term into one they were already somewhat familiar with: squash.
The word squash was already in English, but from a different route and with a different meaning. The verb squash meaning “to crush, squeeze” entered English by the early 1300s. This word has its origins in the Latin word quassare meaning “to shatter” and the Latin prefix ex meaning “out.” Together, they made the Vulgar Latin word exquassare meaning “to crush, destroy, break.” This became the Old French esquasser or escasser before entering English as squachen and finally squash. By the 1610s, the term was also being used as a noun to mean “the act of squashing.” However, it wasn’t until 1899 that the racquet game was termed squash in reference to the soft rubber ball used.
Most of what we consider squash today are a specific genus of gourds in the genus of Cucurbita. Most of these gourds grow on vines, typically with flowers in shades of yellow or orange. The plants are also divided into male and female with the males producing the flowers and the females producing the fruit. While related to the gourds that grow in Africa, the Cucurbita genus grows predominantly natively in North America with some of the earliest examples of the genus dating back to 8,000. Evidence of these vegetables being grown in North America around this time period stretch from Canada to Argentina and evidence of squash being grown is found in the archaeological excavations of most major Native American settlements.
Of course, squash doesn’t just refer to the curved or straight-necked fruits we use to eat and decorate with. Pumpkins are a type of squash as our zucchini or courgettes. Vegetable marrow and cocozzelle are part of the squash family. There are also strangely shaped variations like the acorn squash, scallop squash, and butternut squash. While squash were native to the Americas, there is only one New World country classified as one of the top ten squash producers in the world. The U.S. is only fourth on the list of top squash producing countries, falling behind China, India, and Russia. Beyond the U.S., Cuba is the only country that manages to be in the top 20 for squash producers. While the U.S. is only the fourth largest producer of squash, it is the world’s largest importer of the vegetable.
Everyone knows about the first Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621 to celebrate the survival of English colonists in the New World, but not a lot of people know the long strange journey the holiday took to become an official celebration on the American calendar. The road to the modern-day Thanksgiving dates before that “first” feast in Massachusetts and has a lot more to do with an 1850s housewife than it does with anything the pilgrims would have recognized. Changed by war and consumerism, there isn’t much about the way we celebrate Thanksgiving the pilgrims would recognize.
The word thanksgiving is the combination of two words: thanks and giving. The word thanks is believed to come from a Proto-Germanic noun thanka, perhaps expanded from a prehistoric concept for “thinking, remember, to remember fondly or with gratitude.” This came into Old English as þanc or þonc meaning “grateful thoughts, gratitude” and then as thank in the Mid-1200s. The plural form thanks also came across at this period. The word thanks was largely part of a phrase “I give you thanks” until the 1580s when the shortened “thanks” was made acceptable.
Meanwhile, the word give originated from the Proto-Indo-European ghabh meaning “to give or receive,” becoming the Proto-Germanic geban of the same meaning. This came into English via the West Saxon/Old English giefan meaning “to give, bestow, deliver to another, allot, grant, commit, devote, or entrust.” This became the Middle English yiven, but the influence of the Norse form of the word, gefa, changed the influence of this “y” to a guttural “g”. As a result, the word began the modern day give around the early 1200s. The combination of thanks and giving to make a single word is from the 1530s when the word thanksgiving was used to describe feasts, religious services and other ceremonies for “the giving of thanks.” The specific sense of “public celebration acknowledging favors from the divine” came about in the 1630s, though the “First Thanksgiving” itself was held in 1621. The word Thanksgiving Day was used until the 1670s, recalling the earlier feast.
Long before the Plymouth celebration of 1621, the settlers at Jamestown held a similar feast to express thankfulness for their survival in the New World in 1607. By 1810, the Jamestown Colonists began celebrating this date every year. Later, Virginia colonists arriving in Charles City County would begin celebrating Thanksgiving in 1620 to celebrate their safe landing. Even before English settlers were giving thanks for their arrival in the New World, Spanish settlers were doing the same thing. A religious service held at San Elizario, Texas in 1598 and one celebrated by the Spanish in present-day St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565 both predate celebrations by the English.
While the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth was celebrated in 1621, most of the records we have of the Plymouth colony’s thanksgiving feast comes not from that event but one held two years later. The date was one not celebrated every year or even on the same day with religious groups across New England holding days of thanksgiving to celebrate and honor various events. By the time the American Revolution had broken out, each state could chose when and how many thanksgiving days they would hold. The only official federal thanksgiving festival was one declared by George Washington in December 1777 to celebrate the defeat of the British at Saratoga.
After the U.S. became an independent nation, thanksgiving was celebrated more like the National Day of Prayer is today with religious services. George Washington declared this official Thanksgiving day to be held on Feb. 19, and it was left up to every president afterwards to declare when or if he wanted to hold similar ceremonies. The religious John Adams held two during his presidency, but the more skeptical Thomas Jefferson declared none. There wouldn’t be an official thanksgiving again until James Madison in 1814 to celebrate the American survival of the ongoing War of 1812. From then on, it was largely individual states like Massachusetts and New York that held their own thanksgiving.
It would an American writer, editor, and housewife known predominantly for authoring “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that would make Thanksgiving the federal holiday it is today. Sarah Josepha Hale began writing and publishing to support her family in her widowhood, and served as editor of the Ladies Magazine. It was this platform she used to try and convince successive presidents to make Thanksgiving a federal holiday. She urged letter writing campaigns from her readers and published articles with ideas for Thanksgiving decor and menus. Of course, Hale’s idea of a great Thanksgiving dinner didn’t have much in common with the one the pilgrims ate. Eventually, her editorials convinced President Abraham Lincoln to make the day a federal celebration, declaring the last Thursday in November 1863 as the new Thanksgiving Day. The day took over a previous holiday, Evacuation Day, which had been celebrated to honor the day the British officially left America.
Thanksgiving was celebrated in a variety of different ways in different parts of the country. Turkey and geese were the centerpiece in the New England celebrations while ham was usually the main dish in the Southeast. Other areas had dishes like pigeon pie. Parades of children in mixmatched clothing who came seeking food not too dissimilar to Halloween were commonplace in many areas and as the sport of football became more popular in the late 1800s it became common for the local high school or college rivalries to play a game on the day.
Thanksgiving changed yet again in 1939 when FDR attempted to move the day up to lengthen the Christmas shopping season in response to the Great Depression. This resulted in Democrats celebrating the day on FDR’s proposed date and Republicans on the more traditional last Thursday. The Senate and House both got in on the game, passing conflicting resolutions until in 1941 it was officially declared the third Thursday of November was Thanksgiving, a date that has remained in place ever since - though some areas continued using the last Thursday well into the 1950s.
The centerpiece of many a Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey is a uniquely American bird that’s name actually has very little to do with its origins. Despite the fact that the term has become associated with the cowardly and things that don’t operate as they should, Benjamin Franklin considered the turkey a much more noble bird than the eagle - and one that was also more native to the Americas. And despite our notions about the bird, anyone who has raised or encountered wild turkeys can tell you these birds are quick, mean, and extremely willing to attack anyone who violates their hierarchy or territory.
The word turkey came into English around 1530s to refer to a species of guinea fowl brought from Africa back to Europe by traders from Portugal and through the Ottoman Empire, the present-day country of turkey. The original bird known as the turkey is not the turkey we think of today but the African native helmeted guineafowl or Numida meleagris, a bird native to many African countries south of the Sahara Desert that was brought to breed and eat first in Europe and then in North America. The bird was referred to as a turkey because English speakers called it a turkey coq or turkey cock because they were sold by Turkish merchants. The Turks called them Indian hens because they falsely believed the birds came from India.
It was the exposure to this type of guinea that led European colonists to misidentify the North American bird species as a turkey. For some reason, English speakers decided to keep the word turkey for the bird from the Americas that never once traveled through turkey and returned to guinea fowl for the African bird that often did travel through Turkish lands. While the term had been largely applied to the African bird by the 1530s, by the 1610s it was the American bird that had retained the name. Sometime between the American bird supplanting the African bird in terminology, the turkey became a focal point of grand meals in Britain. Just as the turkey has associations with India because of the mistaken belief that the New World was part of Asia, early English colonists also referred to products grown by native peoples as turkey corn and turkey wheat along with terms like Indian corn and Indian wheat to distinguish them from more well-known European varieties.
The phrase “talk turkey” appeared as early as 1824, allegedly from the story of a white man trying to trade an inedible buzzard he has killed for a turkey a local Native American has shot while the phrase “cold turkey” meaning to quit or withdraw from something appeared around 1896 but didn’t come to specifically mean an addition to a substance until 1910. The term turkey meaning a failure or a flop appeared around 1927, the phrase “turkey shoot” in reference to something easily accomplished dates from World War II, and the word meaning “a stupid person” from 1951. The country name Turkey dates back to the 1300s referring to the part of the Ottoman Empire where the Turkish people were native.
First domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico, the turkey we now know and eat was known by its first farmers as wueh-xōlō-tl. Modern-day Spanish refers to the bird as pavo. Europe and Turkey are not the only places where there is a connection between India and the bird. French, Russian, and Poland also have terms that associate the American bird with India. Today, an official turkey is one two species of birds in the Meleagris genus, a name taken from the species of the African bird it was once mistaken for. These two species are the domestic or wild turkey found everywhere from Canada to Mexico and the ocellated turkey found in the forests of the Yucatan.
While the turkey didn’t become America’s national bird, it has become part of a rather strange American tradition known as the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. Taking place at the White House shortly before Thanksgiving, the event involves at least one live domestic turkey being presented before the president by the Poultry and Egg National Board. The president then offers the turkey a “pardon,” reprieve it from the Thanksgiving dinner table and typically sending it to Disneyland or Disney World where it serves as the grand marshal in the Thanksgiving parade before being retired, typically somewhere in Virginia.
Turkeys have been donated to presidents over the years, including from a Rhode Island poultry dealer named Horace Vose who sent a bird to the White House for Thanksgiving every year in the late 1800s. Some claim the turkey pardoning tradition dates back to Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The first turkey pardon is also often erroneously attributed to Harry Truman in 1947, documents later revealed this was a publicity stunt to make Truman look good after he encouraged Americans to go without foods like turkey, eggs, meat, and other foods during the austerity years following World War II. As a result, crates of turkeys and other foods were sent to the White House in protest.
Likewise, President Dwight Eisenhower went on to eat at least two of the birds he “pardoned” during his presidency while JFK pardoned a single bird, ironically just four days before his own assassination. Richard Nixon continued on the turkey sparing tradition unofficially, but it was Ronald Reagan who first issued an official presidential pardon to a turkey named Charlie in 1987 as a way of deflecting questions about the Iran-Contra Affair. The turkey spend his remaining days in a petting zoo.
George H.W. Bush continued on the tradition and Bill Clinton gave the presentation its official name in 1999. The traditional also began to pardon a turkey and an alternate turkey in case the first was “unable to fulfill their duties” under Clinton’s presidency. While only a few turkeys get lucky enough to get pardoned on the state, federal, and even local level each year, an estimated 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten on Thanksgiving Day alone - roughly one-sixth of the turkeys sold all year round. The average American consumes about 16 pounds of turkey every year with a record high of 302.7 million turkeys raised in 1996.
Once the turkey is eaten and the table is cleared, its a tradition for many families to let two members attempt to “break the wishbone.” Taking one of the bones from the piece of poultry just consumed, two people attempt to pull the bone apart. The one who ends up with more of the bone than the other receives their “wish.” While many might think this is just another strange American Thanksgiving tradition, it actually goes back a lot further. Likewise, turkeys are the only birds subjected to this bone breaking tradition after they have been consumed.
The wishbone is actually a bone known as the furcula, which means “little fork” in Latin. This forked bone is found in birds - and dinosaurs - formed by the fusion of the two clavicles birds have. It serves to strength the thorax in birds so their throats can withstand the stress put on them by flight. Of course, birds don’t have to fly to have a furcula. While the custom of breaking this bone dates back much earlier, the term wish-bone referring to this bone dates from around 1860 in reference to the customer. Before then, many British wishbone breakers referred to the bone as a merrythought.
The tradition of breaking the wishbone goes back to the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization who were conquered by the Romans. The Etruscans believed that their chickens were oracles that could predict the future and used chicken bones for a specific divination practice known as alectryomancy, literally meaning “rooster divination.” One of these methods was by using the furcula of the bird, drying it and then using it as a good luck charm. The Romans adopted (read: stole) these chicken predicting traditions with a twist: they began breaking the wishbone between themselves for good luck. The Romans then spread this tradition to all the countries they conquered.
In addition to wishbone breaking, other traditions of using poultry bones as divination abounded across Europe. In 1455, a diviner for the wealthy recorded how the wishbone of a goose could be used after feasts on St. Martin’s Day to predict the upcoming weather for the growing season. The concept of breaking the wishbone for luck was also extensively recorded throughout the 1600s, one of many traditions European immigrants brought with them to the New World. Whether or not breaking a dry piece of bird bone brings anyone luck is still a matter for debate.