Thanksgiving Symbolism

Learn the meaning behind your favorite festive foods.

(photo: Shutterstock)

Thanksgiving has arrived! Here is a quick look at the symbolism of the major staples of the Thanksgiving meal.

Turkey, an American original, reminds us that God provides now just as he did in the days when his chosen people wandered in the desert. As Psalm 105 puts it: “They asked for meat, and he sent them quail.” The pilgrims could say the same thing. God provided them a bigger (and better tasting) bird in the turkey — and turkeys are still found wild in America today.

Mashed potatoes remind us of the goodness of the earth God has given us. As Pslam 104 puts it: “He makes plants for people to cultivate — bringing forth food from the earth.” That applies even more to potatoes: a food that is pulled out of the earth itself. They were unknown in Europe until the discovery of America.

Cranberry sauce, another American original, is a little too tangy, a little too bitter for many people. Like the bitter herbs at the Seder, the sour cranberry can remind us of the religious persecution the pilgrims were escaping when they came here. Isaiah speaks of the kingdom of God to come: “In those days, they shall no longer say, ‘The parents ate unripe grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’”

Pumpkin pie’s signature flavor comes from nutmeg, a highly valued spice that crossed Christian and Muslim cultures in the Middle Ages, and pumpkins are found on all the continents of the world except for Antarctica. Think of pumpkin pie as the Old World’s contribution to the Thanksgiving table. And Christ added the old to the new when he praised “the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”


Adapted from this past User's Guide to Sunday.

Tom and April Hoopes write from

Atchison, Kansas, where Tom is

writer in residence at Benedictine College.