For a holiday that gifts us annually with a blend of family values, civics, and ecumenical spirituality, the decorations around Thanksgiving tend to come down to a few, very familiar, objects. Special plates, napkins, festive tablecloths, or any of the countless other forms of decorations used during this most uniquely American of holidays tend to feature autumn vegetation ranging from leaves to pumpkins, gourds, cornucopias filled with “plenty” and just one animal: the turkey. Whether we’re discussing retail items bought on sales or bulk wholesale Thanksgiving Day decorations, the large, tasty, ugly, and oddly lovable bird will always be a major player when it comes time to celebrate this most American family holiday.
Turkeys, of course, are inextricably bound up with our nation’s history, though some in Europe and elsewhere were actually consuming them well before the early American settlers who made them famous. Indeed, the name “turkey” comes from the fact that the birds were imported to Europe via the Ottoman Empire, which includes modern day Turkey. Nevertheless, it’s more than just legend that has the earliest settlers taught to hunt the local wild fowl by native Americans during the hard year of 1620-21 that led to the famed first Thanksgiving in Plymouth Massachusetts. Just to confuse matters, however, historians now believe the main dishes at that historic feast were likely goose and venison. (If things had gone slightly differently, would we now be featuring pictures of deer and geese in our Thanksgiving decorations?)
Nevertheless, the association in the public mind between the early settlers and turkeys grew a great deal in the public mind during the colonial era, to the point where founding father Benjamin Franklin famously argued in a letter to his daughter that, partly because of its importance to first Americans, the tasty fowl would be a far better candidate for the national bird than the eagle. (Franklin’s case for the turkey is memorialized in an amusing scene from the musical “1776”). By the time Abraham Lincoln made the growing custom of Thanksgiving a national holiday as the Civil War raged in 1863, it was probably only a matter of time before the holiday would become known by its popular present-day nickname, “Turkey Day.”
Even today, presidents traditionally pardon one of a number of turkeys brought to the White House, while the others supposedly end up on the holiday dinner table. This begs two questions. First, what capitol crimes the turkeys are supposed to have committed? Also what’s to be done in a year like this one, when the White House’s occupants include two animal-loving children?
And so we have turkeys on just about everything you can think of that might be associated with a holiday meal including plates, napkins, window clings, refrigerator magnets, articles of clothing, and more. We have silly cartoon turkeys and deadly serious fowl, realistic looking birds, and more abstract ones. As far as we know, Pablo Picasso never drew a Turkey, and so we’ve avoided cubist dinner fowl.
The fact of the matter is that both the retail and wholesale Thanksgiving Day decorations we know and love are as tied up with turkeys as they are with the colors of autumn. That applies equally to both cheap decorations and those that are on the pricier, non-closeout edge of the spectrum. When it comes to major holidays, we Americans tend to have a bit of a love affair with our largest source of Thanksgiving protein.