Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving - Reexamining Traditions....

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, but because modern Thanksgiving traditions focus so heavily on the consumption of turkey flesh, it can be the most difficult holiday to sanely maneuver as a vegan. Today Thanksgiving is all about the turkey, yet what few people realize is that Turkeys had virtually nothing to do with the first Thanksgiving in either Canada or the United States, and were not a common meal item during Thanksgiving until the Mid 20th century. In fact many of the things we consider Thanksgiving traditions today, from the spirit of the holiday to the food involved have little or no connection to the original celebration, and are complete myths. The Thanksgiving traditions that we are all familiar with today, have only been developed over the last two centuries.

In America there is actually very little known about the first Thanksgiving, and what we do know about it comes from only two sources. One a letter by Edward Winslow dated December 1621, the second a book by William Bradford written twenty years after the event took place. Though interestingly enough Bradford’s book was stolen during the revolutionary war, and didn’t resurface until 1854 so it had very little influence on shaping American Thanksgiving traditions. No where in either document do they write that turkeys were slaughtered for the actual Thanksgiving feast. In fact the only mention of turkey is from Bradford, who writes in his book only that the colonists hunted wild turkey’s during the autumn season. Though his book gives clues as to what may have appeared at the feast.

The animals killed for the first Thanksgiving were likely ducks, geese, various kinds of fish, and possibly deer. Though there is some speculation that because of the bounty of abundance brought in by the fall harvest, there would have been less meat, and more fruits and vegetables adorning the table. Interestingly many of the dishes we consider so familiar were entirely absent at the first Thanksgiving. Cranberry’s if they were used at all would have been used almost solely for their color because their tartness wasn’t desirable to the European settlers. It wasn’t for another fifty or so years that people began boiling fruit with sugar to make sauces and pies. Though had the settlers been privy to this trick it is unlikely that sugar would have been available anyway. Potatoes either regular or sweet were also not available at this time as cultivation of the popular root vegetable had not yet spread to North America. Pumpkins were also likely absent, but even if they had been available there was no flour so pumpkin pie would have been impossible, subsequently there were no ovens in which to bake a pie so it’s doubtful any pie at all was served for dessert. Another interesting fact is that there were no forks at the Thanksgiving feast.

There is also some controversy not only about whether or not the pilgrims actually first landed at Plymouth Rock, but also just how friendly their relationship with the Wampanoag Indians was. There are many stories and accounts of the European colonists stealing from and raiding the homes and ‘pantry’s’ of the Wampanoag. Taking their corn, beans and other harvest foods. It is also said that the Wampanoag weren’t originally invited to join in the festivities. That it was only after hearing gunfire from the settlers hunting rifles that the Wampanoag - thinking the settlers were preparing for war - appeared on the scene. Once they realized that they were mistaken and that it was a feast being prepared they returned to their homes to gather their people and the bounty of their harvest to share with the settlers.

Contrary to popular belief this first Thanksgiving really shouldn’t be labeled as such, but rather be called "The first Thanksgiving of the New World" Thanksgiving historically and traditionally has always been a celebration of the fall harvest. This tradition of celebrating the abundance that comes with autumn goes back as far as civilization and appears in some form or another in every culture in every country across the globe. The European settles likely celebrated fall harvest in some form in the years before their journey to the new world, making this ‘first Thanksgiving’ just a continuing tradition of something that was already familiar to them. Thanksgiving has little to no religious significance, in fact the European settlers while religious, never would have celebrated fall harvest in a religious manner, doing so would have been considered inappropriate. They actually had two separate fall traditions, the fall harvest which we know today as Thanksgiving, the celebration of food and feasting, and then an actual Thanksgiving which was spent in quiet reflection and fasting in the name of God. This second tradition was a solemn and serious affair as were most religious rituals and practices of that day. A very different kind of thanks giving then we are accustom today. For centuries afterwards Thanksgiving remained a religion-free celebration, and it wasn’t until the twentieth century that Thanksgiving began to take on a more religious significance at least in the United States.

So, how, you might wonder did our current traditions and notions of Thanksgiving come to be? Well the credit can almost solely be placed upon the persistence of one woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, who lived from 1788 to 1879. Hale was the editor of a very popular magazine. She is also the author of the novel Northwood: Life North and South, one of the first American books written by either gender about slavery. She is also famous for authoring the children’s nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Believing there were too few annual holidays celebrated in America, Hale embarked on a 40 year quest beginning in 1827 to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Before becoming a national holiday Thanksgiving was only regularly celebrated in New England. While other states had harvest festivals, their traditions were sporadic and took place anywhere between the beginning of October to the end of January, and was relatively unknown in the South. She used her status as an author and the vehicle of her editors position to write romantic and idealistic tales of the First Thanksgiving, taking many liberties to better appeal to her readership, she also went so far as to include her own personal recipes for some of her favorite fall dishes in the magazine. Recipes including those for roasted turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, things that - as already mentioned - would not have been present at the first Thanksgiving, but subsequently are all things that we eat today as part of our ‘tradition.’

In her quest to make Thanksgiving a national holiday she wrote letters to five different American Presidents - Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln - as well as other officials. Virtually all of her letters went ignored, until her letter to Lincoln which was persuasive enough to convince him to support legislation establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. The new national holiday was considered at the time a unifying day after the stress of the Civil War. Interestingly prior to the addition of Thanksgiving the only national holidays celebrated in the United States were Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday.

However even as many of the myths Hale started began to seep into the culture’s collective consciousness, turkeys were not widely accepted as the picture perfect Thanksgiving meal until the mid twentieth century. You see wild turkeys - the kind of turkey the pilgrims would have eaten had they eaten any turkey at all - are adorned with dark plumage, and are thus dark skinned, meaning they have dark meat. Dark meat was unappealing and unappetizing to a great majority of consumers so to make turkey meat more desirable the Beltsville white was bred in 1947 at the behest of the National Turkey Federation. Since the white meat was more appealing to consumers, this is when turkey consumption went on the rise, increasing exponentially over the years. Turkey consumption continues to rise, and according to the USDA slaughter numbers an average of 240 million turkeys are killed each year, and anywhere from 22 to 40 million of those deaths occur at Thanksgiving, with another 22 million occurring at Christmas.

Canadian Thanksgiving traditions aren’t based in reality any more then the American ones. Various First Nations in Canada had long standing traditions celebrating in the bounty of the fall harvest dating back centuries before the European settlers arrived. Though the history of Thanksgiving as we sort of know it today can be traced back to the 1578 voyage of Martin Frobisher from England in search of the Northwest Passage. It was his intention to start a small settlement in the pressent Canadian territory of Nunavut and his fleet of fifteen ships was fitted with men and materials for exactly this purpose. However his expedition was plagued by ice and freak storms which at times had scattered his fleet, but upon rejoining at their anchorage Robert Wolfall an appointed preacher gave a sermon of thanks to God for their miraculous deliverance from danger, after which they celebrated.

Years later French Settlers having crossed the ocean and arrived in Canada with explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1604 and onwards, also held huge feasts of thanks. They even formed "The Order of Good Cheer" and happily shared their food with their First Nations neighbors.

After the Seven Years War ended in the 1763 handing over of New France to the British, the citizens of Halifax held a special day of Thanksgiving. Beginning in 1799 Thanksgiving days were observed though not held every year. After the American Revolution American refugees who were still loyal to Great Brittan moved from the newly independent United States into Canada bringing with them many of the traditions and customs of American Thanksgiving. Still celebrations varied across the country. Lower Canada and Upper Canada for example celebrated Thanksgiving in different ways and on different dates, usually coinciding with the ends of wars and rebellions. Following the rebellions when the two Canada’s had merged into a united Provinces of Canada Thanksgiving was only observed six times between the years of 1850-1865.

It wasn’t until 1879 that Thanksgiving Day began to be celebrated every year, though the date was initially a Thursday in November. The theme for Thanksgiving also changed each year to reflect an important event to be thankful for. In the early years it was for an abundant harvest, however after World War 1 Thanksgiving Day was combined with Armistice Day and celebrated on the Monday of the week in which November 11th occurred. In 1931 the two days once again became separate holidays, and in 1957 Thanksgiving was permanently set on the second Monday in October.

Interesting no? Another interesting little fact is that while Hale was no friend or savior to the Turkey she did have some other very noble ideas about what a Thanksgiving tradition should include. She originally envisioned that Thanksgiving would be about charity and generosity writing, "Let us consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place fo plenty and of rejoicing." I guess some traditions stick better then others which is kind of my point in this writing.

We as people pick and choose our traditions and our beliefs. Our emotional attachments to ‘traditional Thanksgiving’ - as well as other cultural traditions - are incredibly powerful, and very often we try to justify them by citing historical accuracy. However historical accuracy plays no role in the Thanksgiving traditions of today, the idea is completely absurd. We continue to view turkeys as the quintessential Thanksgiving meal because that’s what we’ve been taught. We continue to eat turkeys because that’s what we grew up with, it’s what we’ve always enjoyed. At a very young age we are conditioned into a set of traditions, rituals and values, but often as we grow up we choose to ‘cherry pick’ those traditions, and values that best suits us, while leaving the rest behind. We choose to make Turkey our tradition but we can just as easily not choose it. It’s our ideals that shape our traditions, they’re not - or at least shouldn’t be - dictated by what people may or may not have eaten 400 years ago. That’s crazy if you think about it.

Our celebrations should reflect our values, and my values don’t jive with the mindless slaughtering of millions of beautiful animals whose flesh I have no nutritional requirement for. It’s important to remember that we can live our values and honor tradition at the same time. Remember that above all else Thanksgiving was a celebration of the fall harvest. We can easily, happily, healthfully and without murder celebrate in the countless bounty of fall. 22-40 million innocent and beautiful turkeys are slaughtered every year for this day of Thanks, but they don’t have to be. You can choose to celebrate kindness, you can choose to celebrate mercy, you can choose a gentler tradition.

This year live the values of compassion and celebrate a turkey free Thanksgiving.


  1. Enjoyed this post, very interesting! Happy turkey FREE thanksgiving to you and yours! S.T.

  2. Great post to either read or reread right now. =D Good info & quite interesting. It's also funny seeing as how Colleen talked about the National Turkey Federation in a letter to a newspaper recently. Turkeys are so cool & beautiful. I don't know how I could've ever eaten them. =( No more! - Matt