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Why Eat Turkey for Thanksgiving? (It’s Not Because of the Taste.)


Why eat turkey for Thanksgiving? It’s because of a mix of historical and cultural reasons, but for 21st century Americans, it also makes for an effective training in thankfulness. 


Turkeys are unattractive animals which can make for bland food. A turkey’s face is unpleasant, glaring out at the world with a look that is at once beady-eyed, bald, saggy, and jowly. If anyone is said to resemble or sound like a turkey in any way, it’s never a compliment. If there’s a lowly-to-majestic continuum that ranks from cow to horse, turkeys are off the map gobbling somewhere and somehow making cows look majestic.

And yet, I hope we’re still eating turkey at Thanksgivings a hundred years from now. This isn’t because of spite for eating it all these years. No, I really think there’s something important that American society would be leaving behind if we traded turkey for a steak or pizza even if a steak or pizza would raise the level of giving thanks.

Because would eating a pizza instead of a turkey make us more thankful on Thanksgiving?


“Would eating a pizza instead of a turkey make us more thankful?” 


That’s a good question, and we’ll get to it in a second. The reason for eating turkeys on Thanksgiving in the first place is somewhat based in history. We can tentatively say something like this: Turkeys are sort of the meal they would have eaten at sort of the first Thanksgiving. Why all the “sort of’s”? According to the record of the Pilgrim-Wampanoag feast at Plymouth Colony in 1621, the Pilgrims brought “fowl,” which would have included ducks, geese, or turkeys.

And the Pilgrim-Wampanoag meal wasn’t exactly the beginning of our Thanksgiving holiday. People commonly celebrated days of thanks especially following harvests, and it wasn’t until 1863—the middle of the Civil War—that Abraham Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving holiday following the Union victory at Gettysburg. Earlier in the century, an author named Sarah Josepha Hale had helped prod the nation toward having a national Thanksgiving Day, and her description of a New England thanksgiving included turkey at the head of the table. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock became the symbols of the new national Thanksgiving Day, and in the popular imagination, turkey became the centerpiece of the meal.


“In the popular imagination, turkey became the centerpiece of the meal.” 


So, for those of us who prefer steak or pizza to turkey, having these foods would take us farther from being historical on Thanksgiving—but would it make us more thankful?

It wouldn’t, because that’s not how thankfulness works. Thankfulness isn’t handed to us from the outside by presidents or pizza delivery guys. It’s grown within us from the inside.

Thankfulness is not an automatic that comes from getting the next thing we decide we want. In fact, it begins to erode when we make a habit of obsessing about trendy things we haven’t got yet. At the same time, thankfulness buds and flowers within us whenever we take time to remember the good things we’ve been given.

And turkey is good. It’s not often tasty, trendy, or tempting. But it’s good. It’s appreciating good things that grows our capacity to give thanks, whereas the soil of self-indulgence is as conducive for growing gratitude as the moon is for growing flowers.


“Turkey is not often tasty, trendy, or tempting. But it’s good.” 


You want to be a thankful person? Then spend Thanksgiving Day appreciating the good. Instead of losing yourself in the football game, converse with an elderly person who won’t be here too many more years. In lieu of checking your phone to get your daily hits of dopamine, check in with the quiet cousin you haven’t kept up with. Choose the real over the thrill. Appreciate the good. Enjoy the turkey.

When thankfulness becomes something you take with you wherever you go, then in even arid places, you’ll see streams springing up in the desert. Sisters Corrie and Betsy Ten Boom found themselves in a concentration camp because they and their family had tried to hide Jews from Nazis. As if things couldn’t get worse, they discovered that the barracks in which they lived were infested with fleas. Yet they had a Bible and their Scripture reading that morning included 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “In everything give thanks.”


“In everything give thanks.” 


Betsy told her sister Corrie that everything meant everything. Yep, they needed to give thanks even for the fleas. So, they determined before God to be thankful for the fleas. It was only later that they learned that the guards were leaving the sisters’ barracks alone in peace—allowing them to get away with their Bible studies—because the guards were afraid of the fleas.

Gratitude and cynicism are opposite versions of a “Midas touch” (named after the mythical king who literally turned everything he touched into gold). When you’re cynical, you unsurprisingly find negativity under every layer you uncover. Yet when you’re grateful, you spot the good even in fleas.


“When you’re grateful, you spot the good.” 


If you can find a festive feast in plain but good meat, then you’ve got yourself an annual training in thankfulness. In a cynical cultural moment, this is precisely the kind of training we need. Infested with dopamine-dripping headlines of doom, we need to relearn how to appreciate the good. So, please pass the turkey.

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