Thanksgiving: American Myth and Ritual Surrounding ‘Turkey Day’

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Clever turkey caption here  - Image by mensatic

Turkeys are often the butt of Thanksgiving humor-Image by mensatic.

Thanksgiving is rated in a Harris poll as America’s second favorite holiday, following Christmas. Thanksgiving a.k.a “Turkey Day” is a unique holiday that showcases the mythology and ritual of Americans. Every schoolchild has been raised to embrace a mythic story regarding the origin and meaning of the holiday; each November, Americans enact rituals that involve sacrifice and deflection of ill will.

Myth and Social Order

The mythic origin of the holiday is a meal shared by pilgrims and native Americans, as every school child who traced their hands to make turkey tail feathers while wearing a construction paper pilgrim’s hat can explain. Social Studies classes remember Native Americans as a group that welcomed English settlers, fed them, and celebrated harvest with them. Although this is true, that’s not the whole story.

As The Sociology Guide notes, myths “may strive to produce in them a prescribed view of the world and an attitude toward social institutions those responsible for maintaining the status quo that will ensure continuity of the existing social order.”  Abraham Lincoln declared the celebration a national holiday in 1863, only thirty two years after the Trail of Tears forced native Americans to move west.

The Sacrificial Turkey

We’ve all seen the comics featuring plump, dimwitted turkeys, unaware of their fate on Thanksgiving day. The concept that something must suffer as a sacrifice for the good of all is a common theme in ritual. Thanksgiving, unlike other national holidays, incorporates a specific sacrificial animal, the clueless, gobbling, turkey.

Dr. Karen Davis opined on the symbolism of the Thanksgiving Turkey at the Ninth Annual Conference on Holidays, Ritual, Festival, Celebration, and Public Display at Bowling Green State University in 2005. She notes that turkeys were known to be “a cowardly, timid bird” that practically “wandered into town wearing signs that read SHOOT ME.”  Turkeys, she continues, are easy to lure by “mimicking turkey courtship behavior.

Davis considers the turkey a scapegoat. She writes, “they are innocent victims who are blamed and punished for things they are not responsible for.”  Beyond being an animal, making the turkey the butt of the holiday joke can defray ill feelings. Davis states, “derision of the turkey comes in handy.”

Holiday Celebrations: Gratitude, Harmony, and Humor

Turkeys on Thanksgiving platters provide a unifying national myth of gratitude and harmony, while allowing us to deflect ill-will through humor. Turkeys provide both the meat, the gravy, and the mythical and ritualistic underpinning to America’s second-favorite holiday.

Resources

Holiday Histories. A Brief History of Thanksgiving. (2013). Accessed November 19, 2013.

Davis, K. The Thanksgiving Turkey in America as Ritual Scapegoat In the American Tradition of Sacrifice and Protest. (2005). United Poultry Concerns. Accessed November 18, 2013.

Harris Interactive. Happy Holidays! Christmas Is America’s Favorite Holiday: Followed by Thanksgiving and Halloween(2011). Accessed November 18, 2013.

The Sociology Guide. Myth. (2013). Accessed November 19, 2013.

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