It was this letter that led to the creation of the holiday. In 1863, perhaps in an effort to unify the country in the aftermath of a bitter Civil War, Lincoln invited Americans to "observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving." It wasn't until after Hale's death that the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established Thanksgiving as a legal holiday.
Throughout all of this, Hale was touting her idea of the perfect Thanksgiving, and turkey was always at its center. The bird was as symbolic as the holiday itself: a sign of a nation's great wealth and ability to provide for its citizens.
That symbol has carried on to this day, according to Karen Davis, president of the organization United Poultry Concerns and author of a book on the tradition of Thanksgiving.
"The ‘turkey at Thanksgiving idea' is that the turkey is the de facto symbol of America's prowess, of its national origin myth," Davis told The Dodo. "But it's a creation myth that was just invented."
Davis notes that the turkey tradition was only strengthened when President Ronald Reagan began the symbolic gesture of pardoning turkeys. He did so in jest to avoid journalists' questions about the Iran-Contra scandal and whether he would pardon the people involved. He evaded the question by making a joke about pardoning a turkey instead.
Davis says that while it's good to save one turkey from slaughter, this only stands in stark contrast to the rest of the birds. "Pardoning turkeys every year draws attention to the millions of other turkeys who are not pardoned." These turkeys are the ones who end up on serving platters.
While the realities of the turkey production industry are gruesome and well-known by now, the tradition of eating turkey on a holiday can mask these from diners, Davis says. We focus on the turkey as a sign of national unification and the wealth of the country, forgetting that the animal was, more often that not, overfed and filled with a plethora of antibiotics, not to mention slaughtered before he was ever stuffed with stuffing. In fact, because of factory farming, most turkeys on modern dinner tables barely resemble the wild birds that originally graced early Thanksgiving tables - they've usually been bred to become three times larger than their wild contemporaries in just four months.
But the tradition of Thanksgiving is not as tightly bound to the turkey as it once was. As scientists reveal that turkeys are both smarter and more emotionally complex than we once thought, and as turkey alternatives become more popular, more and more people are choosing to participate in the holiday - but not in the act of eating meat. Since 1995, per capita turkey consumption in the U.S. has dropped by 11 percent. That infamous substitute, Tofurky, is even seeing a rise in profits around Thanksgiving as a result.