11/22/2013 02:05 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

The Myth of the Thanksgiving Turkey

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Many people incorrectly believe that the reason we consume the bodies of slaughtered turkeys on Thanksgiving, along with all the "fixins," is because it's a tradition that originated from the first Thanksgiving feast that the Native Americans and Pilgrims enjoyed together. The idea that turkey was the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving could probably not be further from the truth. In fact, there's little to no historical evidence indicating that turkeys were eaten at the first Thanksgiving and we know that they certainly did not consume any of the "traditional" foods we consume on our tables today.

So, where did all this come from? One may be surprised to find out that Thanksgiving was not declared an official holiday until 1863, 242 years after the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Even more interesting is that Thanksgiving "traditions" and the holiday as we know it can mostly, if not entirely, be attributed to one relentless woman, Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale has a vast legacy in American history and was quite the activist and businesswoman in her time. On her mission to get Thanksgiving recognized as a national holiday, for 36 years she wrote to various politicians until one of them finally granted her request in 1863. That politician was a man by the name of Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah Josepha Hale, being the Martha Stewart of her time, immediately began creating her own mythologized version of Thanksgiving in her numerous pieces of publicized work. From cookbooks to prominent ladies' magazines, Hale was unstoppable at creating her own version of what a Thanksgiving meal should be. While it may all stem back to a few seeds of truth from 1621, most of the foods we prepare today for Thanksgiving were not part of the meal served at the first Thanksgiving and nearly every Thanksgiving tradition we celebrate today, can be directly traced back to Sarah Josepha Hale.

While "tradition" is certainly is no excuse to continue immoral practices, anyone who says we need to serve dead turkeys on Thanksgiving to honor "tradition" is simply incorrect. As Sarah Josepha Hale showed us, we hold the ability to start our own traditions at our own tables. In fact, to Hale's own admission, Thanksgiving is about celebrating what we have and giving back to those less fortunate. The first Thanksgiving was a meal of the plentiful autumn harvest, not a gluttonous feast on white-feathered turkeys that were only bred into existence within the past 60 years. So, it's completely acceptable and just as traditional to partake in a compassionate, vegan Thanksgiving meal and perhaps nothing could be closer to the true meaning of Thanksgiving -- appreciation for what we have and reverence for life.