What Does the Turkey Symbolize on Thanksgiving? Understanding the Meaning Behind the Iconic Bird

As we approach the fourth Thursday in November, the smell of roasted turkey fills the air. Thanksgiving Day is known for its abundance of good food, family gatherings, and festivities. But have you ever stopped to wonder what the turkey symbolizes on Thanksgiving? We often associate the bird with this holiday; however, there is more to it than just a juicy and succulent meal.

The turkey has become a staple on the Thanksgiving dinner table, and it has been that way since the 17th century. The holiday’s origins can be traced back to the early settlers in America who celebrated their first successful harvest by offering thanks to the Native Americans who taught them how to cultivate the land. The turkey, being a large bird that could feed many people, quickly became a popular choice for the feast. Over time, it became a symbol of abundance, gratitude, and family.

Throughout history, the turkey has also come to represent national pride and identity. In 1782, the bald eagle became the official symbol of America, beating out the turkey and other birds. However, some people argue that the turkey still holds a special place in American culture since it represents the country’s roots and traditions. So when you sit down to enjoy your Thanksgiving feast this year, take a moment to appreciate the symbolism behind that turkey on your plate.

The History of Thanksgiving in the United States

Thanksgiving is one of the most celebrated holidays in the United States, commemorating the first successful harvest by the Pilgrims in 1621. Throughout the years, it has evolved into a national holiday celebrated with family, friends, and plenty of food.

The history of Thanksgiving dates back to the early 17th century when the Pilgrims sailed from England to the New World in search of religious freedom. They landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, where they faced harsh weather and inadequate supplies that led to many deaths. The following year, they successfully harvested crops thanks to the help of the Native Americans who taught them how to cultivate the land.

It wasn’t until 1789 that Thanksgiving became an official national holiday, thanks to President George Washington, who declared it in honor of the country’s first Constitution. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, which has remained unchanged ever since.

The Significance of the Turkey on Thanksgiving

  • Turkey was not present at the first Thanksgiving feast. Instead, the Pilgrims and Native Americans feasted on venison, fish, and shellfish.
  • The turkey was later added to the Thanksgiving menu due to its large size, which made it a practical choice for feeding a large group of people.
  • Additionally, turkeys were abundant in the United States, making them an affordable and plentiful source of meat.
  • The tradition of the President pardoning a turkey before Thanksgiving began in 1947, when President Harry Truman received a turkey as a gift from the National Turkey Federation. Since then, it has become a yearly tradition and a source of light-hearted humor for the President and the American people.

Thanksgiving Traditions

Thanksgiving traditions differ from family to family but often include preparing and enjoying a large feast, spending time with loved ones, and reflecting on what each person is thankful for. Some families also participate in parades, football games, or volunteering at local charities or shelters.

Another Thanksgiving tradition is Black Friday, a shopping extravaganza that takes place the day after Thanksgiving where retailers offer steep discounts to kick off the holiday shopping season. Black Friday has become so popular that some stores even open on Thanksgiving Day to give shoppers a head start.


Thanksgiving is a time for reflection, gratitude, and coming together with friends and family. It is a holiday that celebrates the rich history of the United States and the traditions that have evolved over time. The turkey has become a symbol of the holiday, and the feast has become a time-honored tradition that brings people closer together. Whether it’s feasting on turkey or watching football, each family has its unique way of celebrating Thanksgiving, making it a truly special holiday.

Year Date of Thanksgiving
1621 Unknown (fall 1621)
1789 November 26
1863 November 26
1941 Fourth Thursday of November

The date of Thanksgiving has evolved over time but has remained on the fourth Thursday of November since 1941.

The Origin of the Turkey as a Thanksgiving Symbol

The turkey is an iconic symbol of Thanksgiving, with millions of families enjoying a roasted turkey as the centerpiece of their holiday feast. But how did the turkey become associated with Thanksgiving? There are a few theories about the origins of this tradition, but most experts believe that it started with the Native Americans and the Pilgrims in the early 1600s.

  • One theory suggests that the Native Americans introduced the Pilgrims to the turkey as a food source and that the bird then became associated with the Thanksgiving feast.
  • Another theory is that the turkey was chosen as a symbol of abundance and prosperity because of its size and the amount of meat it could provide for a large gathering.
  • There is also evidence that turkeys were eaten at early Thanksgiving feasts in the United States, and that this tradition was passed down through generations.

Whatever the true origin of the Thanksgiving turkey may be, it has become an enduring symbol of the holiday and a beloved tradition for millions of Americans.

Other Food Symbols Associated with Thanksgiving (e.g. Pumpkins, Cranberries)

Thanksgiving is a time to express our gratitude and appreciation for everything that we have, including the bounty of food that we enjoy. While turkey is undoubtedly the star of the show, there are other foods that have become synonymous with the holiday. In this section, we’ll explore a few of the other food symbols that are associated with Thanksgiving, including pumpkins and cranberries.

  • Pumpkins: Pumpkins are a classic symbol of fall and are often used as a decorative item during the Thanksgiving season. They are also a popular ingredient in Thanksgiving dishes, with pumpkin pie being a staple on many holiday tables. Pumpkin has a rich, creamy texture and a subtle sweetness that is the perfect complement to the savory flavors of turkey and stuffing.
  • Cranberries: Cranberries are another food symbol that is associated with Thanksgiving. They are a tart, juicy fruit that is native to North America. Cranberry sauce is a traditional Thanksgiving side dish, and many people enjoy the flavor of cranberries in other holiday dishes as well, such as cranberry stuffing. Cranberries are also a popular ingredient in desserts, and cranberry pie is a delicious alternative to pumpkin pie for those who prefer a less sweet dessert.
  • Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes are a favorite Thanksgiving side dish that are often topped with marshmallows and baked in the oven. They have a sweet, earthy flavor that is the perfect complement to the savory flavors of turkey and stuffing. Sweet potatoes are also a great source of vitamins and minerals, making them a healthy addition to your holiday meal.

In addition to these specific foods, Thanksgiving is also a time to celebrate the abundance of food and harvest in general. Many families choose to include other fall vegetables such as squash, carrots, and corn in their holiday meals. Whatever your family’s traditions and preferences may be, Thanksgiving is a time to come together and appreciate the food that we have and the people we share it with.

Overall, Thanksgiving is an occasion that brings people together to celebrate the food and blessings of the harvest season. Turkey may be the star of the show, but there are many other food symbols associated with the holiday, including pumpkins, cranberries, and sweet potatoes. Incorporating these foods into your holiday meal can add unique flavors and textures to your traditional dishes and make your celebration even more special.

Food Symbol Meaning Example Dish
Pumpkins A symbol of fall and abundance Pumpkin pie
Cranberries A tart, juicy fruit that is native to North America Cranberry sauce or cranberry stuffing
Sweet Potatoes A sweet and earthy favorite Thanksgiving side dish Sweet potato casserole with marshmallows

Whether you choose to stick to tradition or try new and creative holiday dishes, Thanksgiving is a time to come together and appreciate the food and people in our lives. From turkey and stuffing to pumpkins and cranberries, these food symbols remind us of the abundance of the harvest season and the many blessings we have to be grateful for.

The Cultural Significance of Thanksgiving in Modern-Day US Society

Thanksgiving is a beloved holiday in the United States that has been celebrated for centuries. Over time, the holiday has evolved and taken on new meanings, becoming an important cultural event in modern-day US society. In this article, we explore the various cultural significances of Thanksgiving, including the symbolism of the turkey.

What does the Turkey Symbolize on Thanksgiving?

  • The turkey is the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving meals in the US, making it one of the most recognizable symbols of the holiday. While early Thanksgiving celebrations featured a variety of food, the turkey gradually became the most popular option.
  • The turkey also symbolizes abundance, as it is often served alongside a plethora of side dishes and desserts. Many people view Thanksgiving as a time to indulge and enjoy the abundance of food and family.
  • Additionally, the turkey symbolizes gratitude. Many people use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to reflect on the things they are thankful for in their lives, including their loved ones, their health, and their blessings.
  • Finally, the turkey is also symbolic of sacrifice. In early Thanksgiving celebrations, many people would hunt and prepare their own turkey, which required time and effort. Today, many people spend hours cooking the perfect turkey, sacrificing their time and energy for the enjoyment of their loved ones.

The History of Thanksgiving in the US

Thanksgiving has a long and complicated history in the US. While many Americans associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and Native Americans, the origins of the holiday are far more complex.

The first Thanksgiving feast likely took place in 1621 between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. However, it was not until the mid-1800s that Thanksgiving became an official holiday in the US. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared that the last Thursday of November would be observed as a national day of thanksgiving. Later, in 1941, the US government officially recognized the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

The Modern-Day Significance of Thanksgiving

Today, Thanksgiving has become an important cultural event in the US. It is a day when families and friends come together to enjoy food, give thanks, and celebrate with one another. Many people view Thanksgiving as a time to reconnect with loved ones and to reflect on the things that truly matter in life.

Thanksgiving by the Numbers:
46 million The estimated number of turkeys consumed each Thanksgiving
1 billion The estimated number of pounds of pumpkin produced each year in the US, most of which is used for pie filling at Thanksgiving
3.7 million The number of people who traveled by air for Thanksgiving in 2019
79% The percentage of Americans who believe that spending time with family is the most important part of Thanksgiving

Overall, Thanksgiving holds a special place in American culture. It is a day to gather with loved ones, express gratitude, and indulge in delicious food. Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey or with another favorite dish, the holiday remains a beloved and important tradition in modern-day US society.

The Role of Turkeys in Native American Culture and Traditions

Turkeys have played an important role in the culture and traditions of the Native American people for centuries. These birds have been a source of food, clothing, and spiritual significance to various tribes across North America. Here are some of the key ways turkeys have been incorporated into Native American culture:

  • Food: Turkeys were a primary food source for many Native American tribes. They were often hunted and used in traditional recipes, such as turkey stew, roasted turkey, and turkey jerky.
  • Clothing: Native Americans would use turkey feathers to make clothing, including headdresses, cloaks, and moccasins. The feathers were also used for decoration and as a symbol of status and honor.
  • Spiritual Significance: Turkeys were believed to have spiritual powers, and were often used in ceremonies and rituals. Some tribes believed that turkeys were messengers between the living and the spirit world. In addition, the turkey was a symbol of sacrifice and giving thanks for the Native Americans, especially during the harvest season.

Perhaps the most well-known association between turkeys and Native American culture is the story of the first Thanksgiving. According to legend, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians shared a feast in 1621 that included turkey. While historians debate the accuracy of this story, it has become a symbol of the holiday and of the relationship between Native Americans and settlers.

The importance of turkeys in Native American culture extends beyond just their practical uses. These birds are a symbol of perseverance, resilience, and respect for the natural world. Through their traditions and stories, Native Americans have shared this message with generations, and have kept the turkey an important part of their culture.

The use of turkey in traditional Thanksgiving recipes

Turkey is the quintessential Thanksgiving dish, the focal point of every festive table. It is a versatile and flavorful protein that can be roasted, smoked, fried, grilled or baked, adding a delicious and satisfying touch to any meal. In this section, we will explore the many ways that turkey is used in traditional Thanksgiving recipes.

  • Roasted turkey: The most popular way to prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving is to roast it, seasoned with a blend of herbs, spices and butter. The turkey is roasted in the oven until it is juicy and golden, and then served with gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes.
  • Turkey stuffing: A classic Thanksgiving stuffing recipe incorporates bread cubes, celery, onions, and broth. Ground turkey is often added to this stuffing recipe to ensure a moist and succulent texture and to achieve a richer flavor.
  • Turkey gravy: No Thanksgiving meal would be complete without a rich and flavorful gravy made from the turkey drippings. This is usually thickened with flour or cornstarch and seasoned with herbs, salt and pepper. The perfect accompaniment to roasted turkey, gravy adds a delicious tang and a touch of luxury to the dish.

Aside from these traditional recipes, turkey can also be used in more innovative ways. It can be used to make turkey chili, turkey meatballs, turkey burgers, and turkey lasagna, among others. Ground turkey is a healthier alternative to beef in many recipes, as it is leaner and has fewer calories.

Whether roasted, fried, or smoked, turkey is a versatile and delicious protein that is synonymous with Thanksgiving. Its rich flavor and juicy texture make it the perfect addition to any Thanksgiving feast.

Recipe Description
Roasted turkey A classic Thanksgiving recipe where the turkey is seasoned and roasted in the oven, then served with stuffing and gravy.
Turkey stuffing A turkey stuffing recipe that incorporates bread cubes, celery, onions, broth, and ground turkey for added flavor and moisture.
Turkey gravy A rich and flavorful gravy made from the turkey drippings, thickened with flour or cornstarch, and seasoned with herbs and spices.

These traditional recipes highlight the versatility of this protein and how it has become an intrinsic part of Thanksgiving in the US.

The Commercialization of the Thanksgiving Holiday and Its Impact on the Symbolism of the Turkey

The commercialization of Thanksgiving has deeply impacted the symbolism of the turkey. Originally, the turkey was seen as a symbol of abundance and gratitude for the harvest. However, with the advent of the industrial revolution and mass production, the turkey became commoditized and commercialized. Now, instead of being a symbol of thanks, it is often seen as a centerpiece on the dinner table or a marketing tool for the food industry. Many people today associate Thanksgiving with the turkey, but few understand the cultural and historical significance of the bird.

  • One major impact of the commercialization of Thanksgiving is the focus on consumerism and shopping rather than giving thanks. Black Friday, which falls on the day after Thanksgiving, has become one of the biggest shopping days of the year. The emphasis on buying and spending has shifted the focus away from gratitude and reflection, which were originally the core values of the holiday.
  • Another impact is the rise of factory farming and industrial agriculture, which has led to the mass production of turkeys. Today, most turkeys are raised in crowded, unsanitary conditions with little access to fresh air or natural light. The birds are often pumped with antibiotics and hormones to speed up their growth and increase profits. This commoditization of the turkey has devalued the bird and reduced its symbolic meaning as a source of nourishment and abundance.
  • The marketing of Thanksgiving dinners and promotions by the food industry has also contributed to the commercialization of the holiday. Supermarkets, restaurants, and catering companies heavily promote their Thanksgiving offerings, often featuring the turkey as the centerpiece. The emphasis on convenience and ease has further reduced the value of the turkey as a symbol of hard work and gratitude for the harvest.

To truly appreciate the symbolism of the turkey on Thanksgiving, we must return to its roots as a symbol of abundance and gratitude for the harvest. This means valuing the importance of locally-sourced, sustainably-raised turkeys and celebrating the hard work of our farmers and producers. We must also shift our focus away from consumerism and shopping and towards reflection, gratitude, and community. By doing so, we can reclaim the true meaning of Thanksgiving and honor the symbolism of the great American bird, the turkey.

Year Total Turkey Production (lbs.) Average Weight (lbs.)
2010 7,188,000,000 30.5
2015 7,056,000,000 30
2020 7,030,000,000 30


  • USDA ERS, 2021. Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System.
  • Feinberg, Emily. 2014. The Symbolism of the Turkey in America and Europe. The Recipe.

Turkeys as a Symbol of American Agriculture and Farming

Turkeys have long been an important part of American agriculture and farming. In fact, the turkey is such a big part of American culture that it has become a symbol of Thanksgiving itself.

But beyond their role in the Thanksgiving feast, turkeys hold great significance in American agriculture. Here are just a few examples:

  • Turkeys were first domesticated by Native Americans in Mexico more than 2,000 years ago, and they were brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century.
  • Today, the turkey industry is a major part of American agriculture, with more than 200 million turkeys being raised each year.
  • Turkeys are a source of both meat and fertilizer on farms across the country.

But turkeys are more than just a product of American agriculture. They also play a role in the history of American farming. During the Great Depression, the National Wild Turkey Federation was formed to help restore the wild turkey population, which had been decimated by hunting and habitat loss.

Today, turkeys continue to play an important role in American agriculture and farming, as well as in our cultural traditions.

Turkey in a farm Turkeys in farm

So, the next time you sit down to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast, remember the importance of the humble turkey in American agriculture and farming.

The Impact of Industrial Farming Practices on the Production and Consumption of Thanksgiving Turkeys

Industrial farming practices have drastically changed the way we produce and consume food, including Thanksgiving turkeys. These practices prioritize maximizing production and profits, often at the expense of animal welfare and environmental sustainability.

  • Factory farming: Most Thanksgiving turkeys come from factory farms with little concern for animal welfare. They are bred to grow unnaturally large and quickly, leading to health problems and a lower quality of life.
  • Antibiotic use: To prevent diseases in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, farmers often use antibiotics on turkeys. This practice has led to antibiotic resistance in humans and animals.
  • Environmental impact: The high demand for Thanksgiving turkeys has led to large-scale farming operations, which contribute to environmental issues such as deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, the industrialization of Thanksgiving turkey production has led to a loss of traditional farming practices and family farms. Consumers can make a difference by choosing to support small, local farmers who prioritize animal welfare and environmental sustainability.

To better understand the impact of industrial farming practices, here is a breakdown of the typical life cycle of a factory-farmed Thanksgiving turkey:

Stage Practice
Breeding Artificial insemination to produce fast-growing, large-breasted turkeys
Hatching Eggs are incubated in industrial hatcheries
Brooding Chicks are moved to large, heated barns with thousands of other birds
Growth Turkeys are fed antibiotics and artificial growth hormones to speed up growth
Processing Turkeys are transported to industrial slaughterhouses and processed for sale

By being aware of the impact of industrial farming practices on Thanksgiving turkeys, we can make a conscious effort to support more sustainable and ethical farming practices. This Thanksgiving, consider purchasing a turkey from a local farmer who prioritizes the welfare of their animals and the environment.

The debate over animal rights and the ethical treatment of turkeys during Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a time when people come together to enjoy each other’s company and give thanks for all the good things in their lives. For many, it is also a time when they enjoy a big meal featuring a roasted turkey as the centerpiece. But for others, the turkey symbolizes the mistreatment of animals and the ethical dilemma of consuming them solely for our pleasure.

There is an ongoing debate among animal rights advocates and those who support the humane treatment of animals. The debate revolves around the ethical treatment of turkeys, especially during Thanksgiving. Some people believe that it is wrong to kill and eat animals, including turkeys. They view the practice as cruel, unnecessary, and inhumane. Supporters of animal rights take the stance that killing animals for our pleasure or as a tradition is morally wrong and goes against the principles of kindness and respect for all living beings.

  • Others, however, argue that raising and slaughtering turkeys for food is a necessary part of human life.
  • They see it as a way to provide sustenance and nourishment for ourselves and our families, and they argue that humans have been consuming animal meat for thousands of years.
  • Moreover, they argue that turkeys raised for food are often treated humanely and that the meat industry has made great strides to improve the living conditions and treatment of animals.

Regardless of where one stands on the issue of animal rights, it is clear that the debate will continue for many years to come, and it is up to each individual to make an informed decision about the ethical implications of consuming turkey during Thanksgiving and any other time of the year.

Below is a table outlining some of the ethical dilemmas associated with consuming turkeys on Thanksgiving:

Pros Cons
Turkeys can provide a delicious and nutritious meal for individuals and families. Killing animals solely for our pleasure or as a tradition is morally wrong.
Turkeys have been a traditional part of Thanksgiving celebrations for many years. Raising and slaughtering turkeys for food is often inhumane and cruel.
The meat industry has made strides in improving the treatment of animals, including turkeys. The practice of consuming animal meat goes against the principles of kindness and respect for all living beings.

Ultimately, the decision about whether or not to consume turkey during Thanksgiving and other times of the year is a personal one that each individual must make based on their own values and beliefs.

What does the turkey symbolize on Thanksgiving?

Q: Why is turkey the traditional main dish served on Thanksgiving?
A: The turkey has been the star of the Thanksgiving table since the early days of the holiday. It was an abundant and large bird that was available in the fall, making it a convenient and practical choice for feeding many people at once.

Q: What does the turkey symbolize on Thanksgiving?
A: The turkey has come to symbolize gratitude, family, and abundance. It is a symbol of the bounty that the Native Americans shared with the Pilgrims during the first Thanksgiving feast.

Q: Why do we pardon a turkey on Thanksgiving?
A: The tradition of pardoning a turkey on Thanksgiving began in 1947 when President Harry Truman received a turkey as a gift from a turkey farmer. Truman jokingly said that he would not eat the turkey and instead pardoned it. This tradition has continued ever since.

Q: What is the significance of the Thanksgiving feast?
A: The Thanksgiving feast is a time to come together with family and friends to give thanks for the food and blessings that we have in our lives. It is a time to connect with others and to express gratitude for all that we have.

Q: What other dishes are typically served alongside turkey on Thanksgiving?
A: Traditional Thanksgiving dishes include mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans, and pumpkin pie. Many families also add their own favorite dishes to the feast.

Q: How do Native American traditions influence Thanksgiving?
A: The first Thanksgiving feast was a shared celebration between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. Native American traditions continue to influence the holiday with many people incorporating their customs and practices into their celebrations.

Q: What are some alternative main dishes for Thanksgiving?
A: Some alternative main dishes for Thanksgiving include ham, roast beef, turkey breast, and vegetarian options such as stuffed squash or lentil loaf.


Now that you know the significance of the turkey on Thanksgiving, you can appreciate the holiday even more. Whether you choose to serve turkey or another main dish, remember that Thanksgiving is a time to come together and express gratitude for all that we have. Thanks for reading and we hope you visit again soon!