Holiday History: The Turkey, A Bird of Courage

A Short History of the Turkey
by Andrew G. Gardner

There may be as many myths and legends, contradictions and questions, about the history of the turkey as any gastronomic icon. Who discovered the turkey and took it to Europe? How on Earth did it pick up a name from a country halfway around the globe? In addition, how did its name achieve prominence as a word signifying failure? Yes, the poor old turkey needs quite a bit of explaining.

When the Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower on December 11, 1620, finding a last-minute holiday turkey was not on their to-do list. New England's thanksgiving would not be invented for another year, and the Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas, so the turkeys scurrying around the Massachusetts woods should have breathed a sigh of relief. The settlers and the Indians waited a year to give thanks for a harvest, and the Bible, the new arrivals said, did not sanction Christmas. Even up to near the middle of the nineteenth century, in the northeastern states, Christmas was just another workday.

Since then America has more than made up for this early lapse.

Put aside Thanksgiving for a moment. Every December 25, to great fanfare, millions of roasted, plump Christmas turkeys paraded to festive tables across the United States. If Benjamin Franklin were still with us, this annual sacrifice would bring tears to his eyes. For rather than lumping the turkey along with the mistletoe, the holly, and all the rest of the jingle-bell paraphernalia, Franklin saw the noble turkey as more than Christmas fare. After independence, an early Congress debated the matter of a fitting symbol for its new country, settling on the bald eagle. Franklin was the United States' ambassador to France and received a newly minted seal of office reflecting the choice. It drew sniggers because the eagle, it was said, looked more like a turkey. Franklin wrote:
I am on this account, not displeas'd that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turk'y. For in Truth the Turk'y is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.... He is, (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that,) a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards, who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.


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