top of page



Circling The Turkey

Antonia Andreoli Walpole Unitarian Church


(As this is often a multigenerational service on a holiday weekend, it has interactive components, as well as real vegetables. Those are in italics throughout.)


Why do we gather together?  To watch the Macy’s Parade while the smell of a roasting turkey fills the house and one by one the cars arrive, loaded with the Brussels sprouts and the newest baby.  To see family and friends while we feast on the iconic bird, gathered around the Harvest dinner.  We sat in chairs, at tables with the best dishes, maybe even wearing our best clothes.  But the first Thanksgiving wasn’t at all like this. Do you remember learning about the first Thanksgiving?

(Ask what they know). 

Where did the Pilgrims get the food they ate that day?  

(Encourage responses).

The Pilgrims didn’t have stores – and they depended on their crops. 


(Show collection of produce).  What do all these have in common?  Accept responses.  These foods will last for months in a cool place. In our modern world, we can eat lettuce and raspberries and tomatoes in November.  But the Pilgrims didn’t have trains and trucks to bring them food from warmer places.  They depended on what they grew and what they stored.  Once they had a bad farming year – and they almost ran out of food.  They were waiting for a ship from England to come with more food, but it didn’t come, and it didn’t come….so the people divided up what there was to eat.  This is what there was for everyone, grownups and children, for almost a week.  Pass out bags. These are tiny bags designed for loose tea – each holds 3 kernels of dried corn. For every day.  Finally the ship arrived. How do you think they felt that day?  Responses.

That ship was loaded with food, but no turkeys.  The only turkeys then were the wild ones they had to hunt. 


Here are a few pictures of turkeys, two very alive with their tails spread, and one on a platter, circled with vegetables. 


(Set children up with coloring).


 “Circling the turkey” – a phrase that has multiple meanings. 

Elmer Fudd, axe raised, circling the unsuspecting bird. 

Or – the traditional side dishes, mashed and buttered and baked and sauced – circling the bird on the groaning table.

And us –seated around tables of all sizes and shapes, in the family circle of reunion that calls “thanks giving” its purpose.


Being thankful for food is only part of what Thanksgiving is about.  I believe that like all holidays that began as or have become ritual, the power of the day is the power of life and death.  Our gathering for Thanksgiving is not particularly ancient, as rituals go.  Presidents Washington and Lincoln both declared a national day of thanksgiving, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression that President FDR decided that a holiday would help the economy by extending the Christmas shopping season.  He declared three, in 1939, 1940 and 1941. Congress established the permanent date.  Rituals marking the harvest may be very ancient, but our own holiday’s history has political and economic sanction from what is, in the scale of human time, very recent history.


How did it get such a grasp on our national psyche in less than a century?


Norman Rockwell helped.  His famous illustration “Freedom from Want” which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post told Americans who we are, or who we think we are. Our contemporary feast may include dishes modified to address fat concerns, the families around the table may be blended, and many modern grandmas would not recognize themselves in that white haired matriarch.  Yet the image remains.  It touches some deep sense of what “ought to be”.  There is the family circle.  There is that beautiful meal – the first in a long series of special meals and occasions which last into January.  But it is not a day to think of the broken nails and aching backs recovering from harvest. It has become a day about family.


Gathering together to eat is the most ancient of human rituals.  We sit together around a table leaded with traditional farm foods, many of which we eat at no other time of year, elbow to elbow with aunts and cousins and someone’s roommate who had no place to go for the long weekend.  And we are grateful to the cooks.  All that food, all that shared labor. All those family stories and updates from the last gathering time.  Someone is visibly, happily pregnant.  Someone else, a babe in arms last year, is running through the house this year.  For a time, the circle of life in this moment is unbroken.  Often unspoken are the names of those who are no longer at the table.  Those long missing, the elderly of our childhood still offer us a hard candy in memory’s album.  Those more recently gone, whose absence is still a healing wound.  The long dark of the year is before us, and we wonder, who might be missing next year?  Those winter months were the death of many of the Plimouth community. Fear of the cold and privation of a northern hemisphere winter is deep in our bones. 


And then – one of the children cuts through this somber thought with a cry, or a new word, or a spilled cup, and this little voice of the future brings us back to the present.  The warm circle of light, and of life.


The family gathers to eat, and to give thanks – who is the recipient of all that gratitude?  Beyond the cooks, the airline pilots, the state troopers on the roads?  For some, to a personified benevolent God, or a seasonal, reliable, productive Mother Nature.  But this is a ritual, remember, that marks the death of summer in the harvest, and the life that the harvest will maintain through the dark weeks ahead.  It is about the power of life and death – about that seed, deep in the earth. 


So for me, I am grateful to the Spirit of Life that has let me share food at one more table, to the Spirit of Life that has let me see the growth of my family’s next generation, to the spirit of Life that leaves me with memories, and gives me hope.


bottom of page