23 November 2021

Traditional Thanksgiving:
Where the “Sacred” and the Profane Intersect

President Obama in the Rose Garden pardoning a turkey.
Shame on Obama

“Two turkeys — named Peanut Butter and Jelly — were pardoned by President Biden on Friday during this year’s annual turkey pardoning ceremony.”

“I want to take a moment to recognize the brave turkeys that weren’t so lucky, who didn’t get to ride the gravy train to freedom,” Obama said from the Rose Garden in November 2016. “Who met their fate with courage and sacrifice and proved that they weren’t chicken.” (1)

By Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns

Since the last quarter of the 20th century, ridicule has outranked sentimental piety in the prevailing rhetoric of Thanksgiving in America. If nobody really hates a bungling turkey carver as long as the food gets served, the smarmy drama played out between the carver, the carved, and the dining chorus is a ritual of dinner that could be said to reveal, as well as conceal, the “determination of each person present to be a diner, not a dish,” wrote Margaret Visser in The Rituals of Dinner. (2)

Traditional Thanksgiving has other functions, but one thing it does is to formalize a desire to kill someone we hate and make a meal out of that someone. In this role, the turkey dinner is not far distant from a cannibal feast, that “strange mixture of honor and hatred” in which not a few cultures in the history of the world have disposed of their enemies and relatives in ceremonial fashion.

Many people to whom I mention this “hatred of the turkey” idea say they never noticed it before. Such obliviousness illustrates in part the idea that the “most successful examples of manipulation are those which exploit practices which clearly meet a felt – not necessarily a clearly understood – need among particular bodies of people.” (3)

In the case of Thanksgiving, the need is not so much to eat turkey, which many people complain about, and more and more people forego, but to rationalize an activity that, despite every effort to make the turkey seem more like a turnip, has failed “on purpose” to obliterate the bird into just meat. To do so would diminish the bird’s dual role in creating the full Thanksgiving experience. In order to affect people properly, a sacrificial animal must not only be eaten by them; the animal's death must be “witnessed by them, and not suffered out of sight as we now arrange matters.”

But since this is how we now arrange matters, attention must somehow be “deliberately drawn, by means of ritual and ceremony,” to the reality of the animal’s life and the “performance of killing.”

This is why, in order to be ritually meaningful, the turkey continues to be culturally constructed as a sacred player in our drama about ourselves as a nation, at the same time that we insist that this bird is a nobody, an anonymous and absurd “production animal.”

According to Margaret Visser, “what is meant by ‘sacrifice’ [is] literally the ‘making sacred’ of an animal consumed for dinner.” No wonder that any mention of cannibalism in connection with eating turkeys or any other animals provokes a storm of protest, given that, as Visser says, cannibalism to the Western mind is “‘massively taboo,’ more damnable than incest.” However, cannibalism, transposed to the consumption of a nonhuman animal, is a critical, if largely unconscious, component of America’s Thanksgiving ritual.

America knows that somehow it has to manage its portion of humanity’s primeval desire to have “somebody” suffer and die ritually for the “benefit” of the community or nation at a time when the consumption of nonhuman animals has become morally problematic in the West as well as industrialized to the point where the eaters can barely imagine the animals involved in their meal.

It is ironic, as Visser points out, that “people who calmly organize daily hecatombs of beasts, and who are among the most death-dealing carnivores the world has ever seen,” are shocked by the slaughtering of animals in other cultures.


(1) Mariana Alfaro, Nov. 19, 2021. In Thanksgiving tradition, Biden grants presidential pardon to turkeys, The Washington Post, Nov. 19, 2021.

(2) Margaret Visser, 1991-1992. The Rituals of Dinner. New York: Penguin.

(3) Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turkeys being transported in freezing temperatures from Des Moines, Iowa to the Sara Lee slaughter plant

This photo shows turkeys being transported in freezing temperatures from Des Moines, Iowa to the Sara Lee slaughter plant in Storm Lake, Iowa. Though this photo was taken in 2007, the exact same conditions prevail in 2021 for turkeys in the Midwest. After their long, hellish ride through ice and snow, the truck pulls into a gigantic steaming Inferno where the birds are slowly tortured to death.

KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her latest book is FOR THE BIRDS: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl (Lantern Publishing & Media).