Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving? No, It Isn't Because of the Pilgrims

Tis the season of mash potatoes, pumpkin pie, stuffing, and turkey. Which begs the question: why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving? Let's unpack this.

Allison Hunt - Author

Nov. 20 2023, Published 10:53 p.m. ET

A turkey prepared for Thanksgiving
Source: Getty Images

The Gist:

  • The first Thanksgiving took place in November 1621.
  • Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1863.
  • Turkey became synonymous with Thanksgiving thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale.
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Tis the season of giving thanks. We here at Distracitfy are thankful that the Writer's and Actor's strikes are over so that we can get back to bingeing new seasons of all of our favorite TV shows. We are thankful for the never ending joy that dog videos on TikTok bring us. But most importantly, we are thankful for everything that is Taylor Swift, more specifically her putting Travis Kelce on the map.

Jokes aside, Thanksgiving is truly one of our favorite holidays. One of the main reasons is that it revolves around so much yummy food: the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, the pies on pies on pies. But, this may be an unpopular opinion, we aren't wild about the turkey.

Why do we even eat turkey on Thanksgiving? Let's unpack this.

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Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

A plate of food at a Thanksgiving dinner
Source: Getty Images

Ahh, the question that's as old as time. Or as old as, well, the very first Thanksgiving, which actually took place in November 1621. In school, we learned that the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims different harvesting skills, which allowed them to have enough food to make it through the winter. In honor of the bounty, the colonists threw a feast for all, which was the first Thanksgiving.

You may be thinking, "Oh, we must eat turkey because of the first Thanksgiving." And you'd be wrong. According to The History Channel, the Pilgrims and Native Americans most likely ate goose, among other things. While turkeys were plentiful in the area, it was mostly eaten by the wealthy people.

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We have to fast forward another 200 years to get the reason why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving. And that reason has the name Sarah Josepha Hale. Sarah was a magazine editor, an established author, and a woman ahead of her time by all accounts. Sarah passionately wrote letters to politicians, urging them to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She hoped that Thanksgiving would unite a country on the brink of the Civil War.

Her portrayal of what a Thanksgiving dinner is from her 1827 novel Norwood is the actual reason why we eat turkey. A chapter in the book is devoted to a description of the meal, describing that a turkey is “placed at the head of the table," (via Britannica).

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Sarah isn't only the reason we eat turkey, but she's the reason that Thanksgiving is a national holiday. In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln himself decreed that the last Thursday of every November would be Thanksgiving Day. He agreed with Sarah that it could unify the country.

And there you have it folks! Although Sarah probably didn't anticipate her legacy being centered around a bid, she is literally the reason for the season and we are oh so grateful.

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