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A turkey.

The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

The origins of the bird

Turkeys, native to the Americas, are very old – 11 million years old, according to paleontologists – and have formed part of the diet of ancient hemispheric civilizations for millennia. There are two principal species, one from Yucatan and Guatemala ( Agriocharis ocellata), the other from Mexico and the United States ( Meleagris gallopavo).

Why are they called turkeys?

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How much time do you have? The short answer is we don't know definitively. The long answer is they're named for Turkey, the country. Spanish conquistadors took them back to Europe's dining rooms in the late 15th century. But even before then, a smaller African version, the guinea fowl (Numida meleagris), was already on British menus. Often known as turkey fowl or turkey coq, they were imported from Turkish traders. Thus, when Europeans encountered the bird in the New World, the word turkey was a lot easier to remember (and to pronounce) than the Aztec word,huexoloti.

However, there are other intriguing explanations for the name's genesis. One is that it arose because the bird's sometimes blue wattle is the colour of turquoise (or Turkey stone). Another, even more exotic theory is that Luis de Torres, the Jewish convert to Catholicism who was Christopher Columbus's interpreter in 1492, dubbed the bird tukki – Hebrew for parrot. And yet another is that Columbus himself called it tuka, the Tamil word for peacock.

Who started Thanksgiving?

If you guessed the American Pilgrims, you'd be wrong. Fifty-six years before the native Wampanoag helped the settlers butter their maize at Plymouth Rock in 1621, a group of 600 Spaniards in St. Augustine, Fla., held a Thanksgiving Day feast to celebrate their safe arrival. Another group held a similar ceremony near El Paso, Tex., in 1598. The Pilgrims, in fact, weren't even the first Brits to mark the occasion. That distinction belongs to the group of English colonists who landed safely in Virginia in 1619 and thereafter observed an annual day of thanksgiving to God. Nevertheless, the feast now traditionally associated with the holiday owes its popularity to the Pilgrim ritual – though the American date (the fourth Thursday in November) was not formally established until 1942.

The Canadian holiday

British explorer Martin Frobisher is credited with holding the first Canadian thanksgiving – in Newfoundland – to mark his safe return from an unsuccessful search for the Northwest Passage. But aboriginal groups (both in Canada and the United States) have long traditions of holding thanksgiving ceremonies to commemorate abundant harvests. Settler groups later copied this custom, beginning in the early 17th century at New France, under Samuel de Champlain. The turkey is thought to have graced Canadian groaning boards after the arrival of United Empire Loyalists from America in the 18th century. The date of the holiday, however, has fluctuated, and was only fixed – as the second Monday in October – in 1957. It's a statutory holiday everywhere, except in Atlantic Canada.

Talking turkey

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Do Canadians like turkey? Let us count the ways. Last year, according to industry statistics, we consumed more than 10 million birds – 400,000 more than in 2008. That's a total of 145.5 million kilograms of turkey meat (or 4.3 kg a person). Nearly one-third of them (3.1 million) are consumed at Thanksgiving, when 38 per cent of all Canadian households buy turkey and turkey products. But as the number of single-person households rises, our patterns of consumption are changing. An increasing percentage no longer purchase an entire turkey. Instead, sales of turkey parts and processed turkey products jumped 80 per cent between 1993 and 2010.



Thanksgiving and new Canadians

Like many Canadian cultural practices, the turkey habit is gradually penetrating the immigrant population. "The same factors would affect this as affect other aspects of cultural adaptation," University of Toronto sociologist Jeffrey Reitz says. "Slower for visible minorities, those who are less educated, those who arrive at an older age." Children of immigrants, he adds, "would likely be more or less assimilated."

But Toronto immigration lawyer Michael Niren says that in his experience, new Canadians often embrace holidays like Thanksgiving with even more enthusiasm that those who have been here for generations. "Coming from where they come from, countries with political conflict, without free speech or rights of assembly," says Mr. Niren, these people evince "an extraordinary level of gratefulness. They are truly thankful just to be here."

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