Thanksgiving and Turkeys: Can You Answer These Five Questions?

The fourth Thursday in November is Thanksgiving Day in America – and that means… turkey! Families across the country sit down to a table laden with food and a big turkey is usually right at the center of it all.

If you think you know all there is to know about Thanksgiving, see if you know the answers to these five questions…

1. Was Alligator Served at the First Thanksgiving Dinner?

The first Thanksgiving is generally considered to have been celebrated by the Pilgrims and their new Native American neighbors in 1621. They gave thanks that they had survived in the strange new land in which they found themselves.

However, 57 years earlier, in 1564 there was another celebration that could be considered the first Thanksgiving meal. It was celebrated near present-day Jacksonville, Florida by French Huguenots and what was on the table? Alligator! Read more about it here.

2. What Does Mary Had a Little Lamb Have to Do With Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving was proclaimed a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Before that it, had been observed on various dates. By the beginning of the 19th century, most states were celebrating it on the last Thursday in November. So Lincoln made it an official American holiday.

But the driving influence to make it a national holiday wasn’t political at all. Instead, the movement was driven by Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb. She had been writing letters to those in public office for nearly 40 years before Lincoln saw it her way and proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Even though it became a holiday in 1863, the first national Thanksgiving Day wasn’t observed until the 1870s because of the Civil War. Then in 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday in November.

3. Did the American Eagle Almost Lose Out to the Turkey?

When the United States of America was first formed, the founding fathers were looking for a national bird to represent their great new country. The bald eagle was a contender, but Ben Franklin seemed to prefer the turkey. He said the bald eagle was of bad moral character and too lazy to fish for himself. But he praised the turkey as being more respectable. And even though he admitted the turkey was “a little vain and silly,” he said it was “a bird of courage.”

4. Why are Turkeys Pardoned by US Presidents?

In 1947 the National Turkey Federation started a tradition of presenting a turkey to the White House the day before Thanksgiving. Most of those birds were served for dinner. But in 1963, when John F. Kennedy was presented with his turkey, he said, “Let’s just keep him.” He didn’t use the word “pardon,” but the newspapers reported the story as a presidential pardon. In 1989, George Bush Senior was the first US president to make an official turkey pardon. Later presidents have continued the tradition. Read more about it here.

5. Is the Thanksgiving Bird Named After a Country?

Have you ever wondered why that big gobbler, which is native to the Americas, is named after a country halfway around the world? Well, it seems that in the 1500s, the Spanish brought some of them back from Mexico where the Aztecs had domesticated them. The unusual, large birds began to be traded around Europe and the Mediterranean. The British bought theirs from Middle Eastern merchants who were called Turkey (Turkish) merchants. The large American birds became associated with the Turkish merchants who sold them and were called Turkey fowl. Soon the name was just shortened to turkey.

It’s interesting that even in other languages this bird is associated with places far from its native land. In French, turkey is dinde which is shortened from poulet d’inde (chicken of India) possibly because, at the time, Columbus thought he had landed in India. I think the Portuguese word is closest geographically, they call the turkey a peru. While the bird didn’t technically come from Peru, it is certainly closer than Turkey or India.

So now as you sit around the Thanksgiving table and the conversation begins to lag, you can liven it up with a bit of turkey trivia.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Margo Lestz
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    1. Hi Cindy, Sorry, I didn’t see your message earlier. Thank you for the Thanksgiving wishes, and I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving too.

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