The 45th President of the United States will soon discharge his most generous act of the year – perhaps his last – by pardoning a turkey to herald the nation’s annual Thanksgiving jamboree. But all is not as cute as it seems.
Historically, the gifted turkeys were usually gobbled-up by their White House recipients, and everyone is free to debate the relative tastes of Democrat and Republican recipes here. Then, In 1963, President Kennedy spontaneously spared his turkey, perhaps because he got queasy on seeing it strutting around his lawn with the message, “Good Eatin’ Mr. President”, adorning its plump breast. Tragically, his forbearance was rewarded with assassination three days later.
Politics became a more serious ingredient of the tradition when President Reagan spared “Charlie”, the 1987 turkey, to deflect attention from his possible pardoning of the Iran-Contra conspirators. Pardoning turkeys became a la mode in 1989 when his successor President George H.W. Bush wisely decided that it was not worth tangling with the animal rights activists yelling outside his kitchen.
Since then, lively public interest in the welfare of reprieved turkeys has been accompanied by political spin; for example, when the media debated whether President Obama’s pardoned turkeys lived longer than President Trump’s. The answer is that none of these turkeys live long as they are bred for size and not for robustness. That is why it is prudent to have two turkeys available – a sort of Vice Turkey to replace the Chief Turkey if the letter croaks prematurely.
The earlier turkeys were gifted by grateful ordinary citizens to their adored Presidents. Over the years, commerce has become much more important as the National Turkey Federation, operating under its unambiguous website EatTurkey.org, sponsors the annual White House event on behalf of the US$4 billion industry.
Be that as it may, festivals to express thanks are well established across all cultures. The American Thanksgiving was imported in the 1620s by pilgrims fleeing religious intolerance in England. They celebrated their safe arrival in the New World alongside the native American Wampanoag people from whom they learnt vital survival tricks such as growing corn and catching fish under harsh environmental conditions. But the harmony did not last when the indigenous population dwindled through exploitation and imported infections. Perhaps that is why many Native Americans commemorate the first thanksgiving as a ‘day of national mourning’.
The original English custom – Harvest Festival – goes back to an ancient belief in the spirit of the corn cereal, nowadays reflected in the ‘corn dolly’ that keeps you safe until the next sowing. The old Romans had something similar: the cerelia festival honoured the goddess of corn, helpfully lubricated by the sister vinalia festival when priests plucked the year’s first grapes to start the new vintage.
There are at least a hundred such thanksgivings around the world. Notable ones include China’s Moon Festival where sticky mooncakes are enjoyed amidst much gorging under shiny lanterns. The Malaysian Kadazan reminds us that “without rice there is no life” while Ghana’s Homowo is all about yams. During Germany’s Erntedankfest, baskets of food are blessed in church ceremonies while the Crop Over in Barbados makes merry in carnival style despite having its roots in the time of slavery. South India’s Pongal is a four-day marathon of dedicated pujas incorporating essentials such as rice, sugarcane, turmeric, and cows. The Jewish Sukkot is a season for rejoicing after their wretched wanderings, with ritualised use of the ‘four species’ of citron, willow, palm and myrtle.
The pre-occupation of thanksgivings with food and agriculture is an understandable reminder of humanity’s precarious dependence on a vicarious nature. This may resonate even more in the contemporary era of climate change, environmental degradation, and ever-more ferocious disasters.
Another category of thanksgivings commemorate martial victories. A modern one is Victory in Europe (V-E) Day, called Liberation Day in some countries, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. Geneva’s Fête de l’Esclade commemorates the 1602 nocturnal attack by the Duke of Savoy. An industrious woman was still awake cooking and poured her pot of boiling vegetable soup onto the mercenaries climbing up the city walls. The commotion alerted the townspeople and the invaders were duly repulsed. A legend was born that is enjoyed nowadays, appropriately enough, by drinking cauldrons of hot chocolate. It must have worked as no one has since dared to bother the doughty people of Geneva – well- known today as the Capital of Peace.
Dating back to the 6th Century BCE is the Zoroastrian Mehregan that recalls the victory of Fereydoon and Kaveh over the tyrannical Zahak. This inspired the great Persian poet Ferdowsi and is still a festival in Islamic Iran although it has been given other meanings. The oldest of all such festive traditions is perhaps the Indian Diwali, which symbolizes the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance through epic battles wherein heroic warriors demolished demons and rescued virtuous maidens. As with US Thanksgiving, political spin is nowadays de rigeur. Prime Minister Modi marked this year’s Diwali by mounting a tank near the Pakistan border.
The moral and social purpose of thanksgiving rituals is obvious. They remind us to take a pause to appreciate everything that we have the good fortune to enjoy, amidst the trauma and turmoil of daily life. They also provide assurance that we will surely overcome forthcoming trials and tribulations because we have successfully vanquished previous ones. They even promise a form of immortality by channelling immutable – hence mythologised – truths from our distant pasts to our unknown futures.
While hunger and conflicts still stalk the world and deserve thanksgiving where-ever we overcome them, our inter-connected status makes us ever-more vulnerable to another shared enemy: disease. So, how to give thanks in the year of COVID-19? Perhaps via a new goddess of vaccines? As it happens, there is an existing deity who has been slumbering for some time and could be usefully returned to service. She is S’ītalā, whose pedigree spans millennia. She was last invoked by the army of vaccinators hired by the World Health Organization for the ‘zero smallpox’ campaign of the 1970s. The anti-vaxxers of that period had no chance against her divine powers and smallpox quickly became history. Also, in our own era of resource constraints, her multi-tasking skills could prove handy: S’ītalā is said to be multi-talented against a variety of “sores, ghouls, pustules, and diseases”. How useful in pandemic times where the coronavirus is impacting on so many other conditions such as diabetes, dementia, cancers, and more. Of course, different traditions around the world may propose their own gods and goddesses as it is always wise to hedge your bets in case, like with vaccines, one deity does not quite prove up to the task. With such a diverse pantheon, one can almost imagine the emergence of a United Nations-declared multi-cultural global thanksgiving festival….
Meanwhile, there is a more urgent problem. On what basis will President Trump select the turkey to share his forthcoming pardoning photo-op? As befits the great democracy of the United States, this will be decided by a popular franchise of American children who will select one of the two candidate turkeys. He has promised that every vote will count and, happily in this case, both turkeys will win because they will both be spared to live out the rest of their short lives in peace and harmony (whether with each other is not clear). But not all children will have had the opportunity to vote and if both turkeys get more-or-less equal votes, how to decide which turkey should have its moment of glory perched on the presidential podium?
Faced with such a difficult choice in a previous year, one small American child displayed incontestable logic with her selection criterion: she voted for the most “nervous-looking” turkey but added that “all turkeys deserve a chance”.
Her inclusive sense and sensibility are to be commended in the age of COVID-19 which has taught us to value both science and kindness. That is indeed worth celebrating wherever you are and in whatever way you wish – with or without turkeys.