Delicious, succulent roast turkey is not only the most common main course dish of a Thanksgiving dinner but it is also traditional to have turkey at Christmas in the UK. Are these traditions linked and how did the turkey become a symbol of Thanksgiving?
Wild turkey is a bird that is native to America and Americans have long considered poultry to be a sign of prosperity. Every Thanksgiving families gather around a dressed turkey and give thanks for their blessings.
Thanksgiving was first celebrated in America by the pilgrims who in 1620 set sail from Plymouth, England, for the New World on a ship called the Mayflower. Just over 100 Pilgrims and colonists arrived in Provincetown Harbour in November 1620. This was a harsh and devastating time for them. There was much suffering and many died. The following summer, conditions improved considerably. In fact, according to William Bradford, the Pilgrim Governor, in his book “Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647” all things were now in good plenty. They had much now to be grateful for.
In 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest festival in America, to give thanks to God for having guided them safely during their journey on the Mayflower the previous year and for the good harvest. These Thanksgiving celebrations included their neighbours, the chief of the Native Indians (Wampanoags) and his extended family of ninety people. The celebrations lasted three days.
It is uncertain whether turkey was served at the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving meal. In a letter sent to England, Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrims described how the governor sent four men out to hunt for food and they returned with turkeys, ducks and geese. The Pilgrims learned how to hunt from the Wampanoag during the harvest celebrations and documents from the time suggest venison and wild fowl were on the main Thanksgiving menu, possibly also lobster, goose, eel, cod and duck which were all in plentiful supply at this time.
So even long before the Pilgrims arrived, Turkey had been a favourite meal in America. Now a symbol of thanksgiving and abundance, how does this link with the UK tradition of turkey as the main course meal at Christmas?
For centuries, it was tradition for families in England to eat goose, boar or peackock at Christmas. Turkeys, according to some stories, were introduced into England by a trader William Strickland who, in 1526 imported six turkey birds from America. Some say it was Henry VIII who was the first English king to enjoy turkey.
Certainly turkey was not introduced into England until after the 15th century and even in Victorian times, turkey was too expensive for most people to enjoy. Turkey was popular with the upper classes at Christmas and over the 20th Century, the rest of society slowly followed.
So other than being introduced to England from America, it seems that the turkey as a symbol of thanksgiving in America and the tradition of turkey as a main meal at Christmas in the UK have developed very separately.