In the early 16th century, when the Spanish came to Mexico, they were met with a bounty of both wild and domesticated turkeys. The following year, they introduced domesticated turkeys in the Caribbean and eventually in Spain, from where this bird became widespread throughout Europe. Turkeys were considered one of the greatest and most rapid growing successes — almost immediately the king of Spain was ordering every returning ship from America to bring 10 turkeys. Wealthy European hosts loved impressing their guests with large roasted birds such as the turkey.
When the English colonists first came to north America (New England) wild turkeys were a welcome sight: they were so plentiful that a dozen or more could easily be shot. (They were also easy to hunt in the hard winter months, as they were clearly visible in the snow).
Although turkeys were abundant during the time of the First Thanksgiving, there is no evidence that they were actually served or eaten during the 3-day meal. Over time the turkey has become almost synonymous with Thanksgiving.
The tradition may be linked to Sarah Josepha Hale´s famous depiction of a Thanksgiving feast in her book Northwood, a Tale of New England (published at the beginning of the 19th century):
"The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odour of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of baking."
Since 1982, when George H.W. Bush first pardoned a turkey, it has become a tradition for the President of the United States to nominate a turkey which will not be part of a Thanksgiving meal. This annual ceremony takes place in the White House’s Rose Garden. This tradition might have been inspired by Abraham Lincoln, who spared the life of a turkey at Christmas in response to pleas from his son, Tad.
I have already hosted Thanksgiving Dinners for my family in Portugal and was glad to hear this week that a Spanish friend, whose children also attended American schools, celebrated it in Spain, too. It is indeed a beautiful family gathering.