Holiday dinner with roast turkey, butternut squash, Brussels sprout, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, all served by a roaring fire.

by Kate Morgan for USA TODAY 10Best

This is why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving

Expats the world over run into the same problem every November: most countries just don’t eat all that much turkey, and grocery stores abroad don’t stock whole birds. A roasted turkey, it would seem, is synonymous with the U.S., but that hasn't always been the case.

Your Thanksgiving turkey actually originated in Mexico. Centuries before the conquistadors arrived, the Aztecs and Mayans were serving domesticated turkeys at banquets. There were even religious festivals dedicated to celebrating the tasty fowl.

But the American turkey tradition isn’t a direct import from our southern neighbor. In the late 16th century, the Spanish brought turkeys from Mexico back with them to Europe. It wasn’t until the mid-1600s that the British imported the Mexican breed to Jamestown.

That’s not to say there wasn’t turkey at the "first Thanksgiving." Early colonists’ journals mention the Pilgrims "gathering wild fowl." But they were eating a different breed than originated in Mexico; turkeys native to the U.S. are smaller and gamier.

There are still populations of these wild turkeys in every U.S. state except Alaska, but unless you’re planning to hunt for your dinner, your turkey will be a Mexican descendant, too.

Despite its status as an import, the turkey quickly became an American symbol. In 1843, Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" – which ends with Ebenezer Scrooge delivering a turkey to the Cratchit family – became hugely popular in the states.

By the time then-President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, it had become the main course of choice. A recent survey conducted by the National Turkey Federation found that at least 88% of Americans now have turkey at their Thanksgiving dinner.

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