I’ve always been ashamed of the annual White House ritual: the turkey pardoned for a crime it did not commit. Mock laughter accompanies the mock crime. Meanwhile, while thousands upon thousands of other helpless animals are slaughtered across the nation.
All across America, fractious families unite for the day over the real carcass of a dead bird – it is the very symbol of a national and familial unity. Is the Thanksgiving turkey a classic scapegoat? I figured I couldn’t be alone in my hunch, and I wasn’t. René Girard, who died earlier this month, is much on my mind this Thanksgiving, and he helps us get a handle on the strange ceremony, with a little help from his friends:
Karen Davis writes in More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001):
“The idea of a Thanksgiving turkey as a scapegoat may seem like a parody of scapegoating, but what is the scapegoat phenomenon but a parody of reason and justice? The scapegoat, after all, is a goat. Animals have been scapegoats in storytelling, myth, and history every bit as much as humans and probably more, as the scholar of myth and ritual, René Girard observes in Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (Stanford University Press, 1988). Social animals especially have been scapegoated since time immemorial. ‘[I]n all parts of the world,’ Girard says, ‘animals living in herds, schools, packs – all animals with gregarious habits, even if completely harmless to each other and to man,’ have been vilified.
“This is not simply a matter of other cultures and ancient history. Evans shows how the belief that ‘everything must be “well-thought, well-said and well-done,” not ethically, but ritually, contributed to the fact that until quite recently, European societies hauled birds and other creatures before the bar in legal ceremonies as absurd as any scene in Dickens. ‘[E]xtending from the beginning of the twelfth to the middle of the eighteenth century,’ he tells us, the culprits were ‘a miscellaneous crew, consisting chiefly of caterpillars, flies, locusts, leeches, snails, slugs, worms, weevils, rats, mice, moles, turtle-doves, pigs, bulls, cows, cocks, dogs, asses, mules, mares and goats.”
Jared Christman explores another angle of the ritual, writing in Grave Pawns: Civilization’s Animal Victims: “The pardon therefore performs the same basic function as the scapegoating sacrifice theorized by Girard in Violence and the Sacred, although instead of one special victim being scapegoated, every animal except for one special non-victim is scapegoated.”
“Around the Thanksgiving table, the cultural relations of the nation merge with the blood relations of the family. Through the carcass of the sacrificial victim, the family becomes a microcosm of the nation and the nation becomes a macrocosm of the family. The size of the culinary victim is key: the entire turkey can be dismembered and consumed at a household gathering. This creates a ritual symmetry between the dimensions of the victim’s body and the dimensions of the cultural building block of the family. …
“This sovereign ‘pardon’ of a token animal has become ritually necessary because the industrialized scale of Thanksgiving creates a pressing need for expiation and the shifting of blame from the victimizers to the victims. Against the holiday’s backdrop of rampant factory farming, the pardon of the “innocent” bird scapegoats every other “criminal” turkey for advanced civilization’s sins against nature. …
“With each passing year, the comforting illusions of the Thanksgiving feast, its New World mythology, conceal less and less the industrialized context of the sacrament. Any serious pretense of the new Eden is long gone. The bird upon today’s Thanksgiving table is a bloated, assembly-line caricature of the wild turkey of the 17th-century American woods. Of course, even the mythology of the original Thanksgiving of the Plymouth pilgrims was a bright shining lie. The cagier fowl of yesteryear’s table was the victim of a ritual protocol of nation-building about as new as the Old World hills.”
Well, there you have it. History has it that the real Thanksgiving was celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida, some years earlier in 1565, when the Spaniards shared a communal meal with the local Timucuans. What was on the menu? Bean soup. Read about it here.
Update: NPR is onto the story here.