Why do People Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is a beloved holiday in the United States, marked by gatherings of family and friends, expressing gratitude, and, of course, a delicious feast. At the center of the Thanksgiving dinner table, you’ll almost always find a roasted turkey. But have you ever wondered why turkey has become synonymous with this festive occasion? In this article, we’ll delve into the history and traditions surrounding the association between Thanksgiving and turkey, exploring the reasons why people eat turkey on this special day.

1. Historical Roots

The custom of serving turkey on Thanksgiving can be traced back to the early 17th century. While the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, didn’t have an exact replica of the modern Thanksgiving feast, they did have a three-day harvest celebration in the fall of 1621. Historical accounts suggest that the Pilgrims and the Native Americans shared a meal together that included fowl, and while turkey was likely part of the feast, there were also other types of birds like ducks and geese.

2. Abraham Lincoln’s Influence

President Abraham Lincoln played a significant role in establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. During the American Civil War, he proclaimed Thanksgiving as a day of gratitude and thanks for the Union’s many victories. While he didn’t explicitly mention turkey, it’s believed that the association between Thanksgiving and turkey strengthened during this time.

3. Thanksgiving Becomes a National Holiday

In 1941, the United States Congress officially declared Thanksgiving as a federal holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. The establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday further solidified the tradition of serving turkey as a symbol of abundance and gratitude.

4. Plentiful and Affordable

Turkey has become a staple of Thanksgiving because of its availability and affordability. During the 19th and 20th centuries, turkeys were relatively easy to raise, and their large size made them ideal for feeding a large gathering. As the popularity of Thanksgiving spread, so did the tradition of serving turkey.

5. Continuation of Tradition

As time passed, serving turkey on Thanksgiving became a deeply ingrained tradition in American culture. Families across the country passed down this custom from one generation to the next, ensuring that the turkey remained a centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast.

6. Symbolic Meaning

Beyond practicality, turkey holds symbolic meaning in the context of Thanksgiving. The turkey’s association with abundance and prosperity makes it an apt choice for a holiday centered around gratitude and giving thanks for the bountiful harvest and blessings received throughout the year.

7. Versatility and Flavor

Turkeys offer a wide range of culinary possibilities, making them a versatile option for Thanksgiving meals. Whether roasted, smoked, deep-fried, or prepared in various other ways, turkey can cater to diverse taste preferences, accommodating both traditional and innovative cooking styles.

8. Bringing People Together

The act of sharing a large roasted turkey brings people together around the table. Carving the turkey has become a ritual during Thanksgiving dinners, symbolizing the act of giving and sharing with loved ones.

9. Nostalgia and Sentimentality

For many, the tradition of serving turkey on Thanksgiving is deeply tied to cherished memories of past gatherings with family and friends. The familiarity of this dish evokes feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality, making it an indispensable part of the holiday experience.

10. Marketing and Commercialization

The commercialization of Thanksgiving by the food industry has also played a role in promoting turkey as the centerpiece of the holiday meal. Advertisements, recipes, and promotions featuring turkey have further solidified its association with Thanksgiving in modern times.


The tradition of eating turkey on Thanksgiving has a rich history that combines historical events, cultural practices, and symbolism. From the early harvest feasts of the Pilgrims to President Lincoln’s proclamation and the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, the turkey has remained a beloved and iconic part of this festive occasion. The abundance, versatility, and meaningful symbolism associated with turkey make it a fitting centerpiece for a holiday dedicated to gratitude and togetherness. As Thanksgiving continues to be celebrated across the United States, the tradition of serving turkey is likely to remain a cherished and delicious part of the annual festivities.

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