Last week (Nov 25, 2010) was Thanksgiving and no Thanksgiving feast is complete without feasting on a turkey. So what is the significance of a turkey and where did it come from?
Turkeys are native to America and were raised way back during the Aztecs and the Mayan civilisation. The turkey has always been associated with Harvest and one of the native myths suggests that it was a turkey that gave corn seeds to a brother and sister and taught them the art of growing and harvesting. Turkeys besides being associated with harvests, are also supposed to have helped in the creation of the world, as per the native mythology.
Amongst the Mesoamericans (i.e. Mexico and Central America), a turkey has a very high status. It was believed that a turkey was the personification of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, who was a warrior and a magician who could see the future in his mirror. Tezcatlipoca was a deity with negative shades, but when he changed himself to Chalchiuhtotolin, which meant, a jewelled turkey, he became the god of good fortune. If Tezcatlipoca could lead humans to self-destruction, as Chalchiuhtotolin, he could rid them of all the ills that led them to destruction.
The turkey in mythology also represents the Sun god. According to Hopi creation myths, it was a male turkey that tried to raise the sun in the sky, and in the process burnt its head, which till today is bald!
A turkey is one animal whose every body part can be used. Besides its meat and eggs, its colourful feathers are used for decorations and its bones are used in making whistles.
Why turkey for Thanksgiving? Well in America, it was a native bird, easily available besides being considered lucky for all the above reasons. However, the eating of turkey spread in other parts of the world too, when turkeys were imported by other countries after trade-routes were opened. During the early 16th century, the King of Spain had ordered that all returning ships should bring with it, five pairs of turkeys and thus started the practice of rearing turkesy outside America. Due to their ease of rearing and availability in abundance, they soon replaced geese during the celebratory feasts across Europe. Today a roast turkey is common for Christmas meals in UK too.
According to a survey, on Thanksgiving, 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten!