Thanksgiving is a national holiday associated with fall, family, football, and the beginning of the holiday season. But perhaps the most notable thing about Thanksgiving versus other holidays is the food. More than any other holiday–save some New Year’s traditions, for which families are expected to have good luck meals–Thanksgiving has a set menu for almost all of America. You know it: mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, gravy, and most importantly, turkey. Have you ever asked yourself how that came to be, or whether it is really what the pilgrims, who are credited with having created the holiday, had in the supposed 17th Century celebration?
According to historians, those who landed on Plymouth Rock did not arrive with the traditions to which we now subscribe. Of course, it’s not difficult to believe that they were indeed thankful for having been rescued, having found the “new world” they were searching for, and for the food provided by the natives, after having traveled for so long. Nevertheless, there is little evidence to believe that cranberry sauce was a part of the meal, or even explicit mentions of turkey, for that matter; but one would be hard pressed to find American households who do not uphold at least some of the tradition, or who have done so, without question, in the past.
It wasn’t until 1863 that Thanksgiving became a national holiday. Prior to that, it was merely a practice in New England, carried out during harvest time; even then, each state scheduled its own day for the celebration, as opposed to the last Thursday in November being recognized by the country. That is, until a woman by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale petitioned to have it become a federal holiday. For 17 years, Hale wrote to U.S. Presidents with no luck, until President Lincoln responded to her request, seeing it as opportunity to unite the nation, following The Civil War.
But why turkey? According to Slate magazine, it may have been Charles Dickens who started the phenomenon. In his book, A Christmas Carol, which was highly popular in America at the time, Dickens wrote about a menu of turkey and stuffing, amongst other things. Another contributing factor to the turkey’s popularity is the nod from heads of state, like President Alexander Hamilton, who proclaimed that “No citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day,” and the rest is history.
Today, the ideal meal is perpetuated by food companies and grocery stores, which now provide turkey and fixings all packaged together, sometimes already cooked. What this tradition shows is how effective PR can be in shaping ideas and behaviors. Perhaps, not everyone’s Thanksgiving meal looks the same today, but there is no contention about what is considered the standard. Over time, the work of these few individuals have ultimately created a phenomenon, a long-standing tradition for over a century, now, and likely for centuries to come.