9 Thanksgiving "Facts" That Aren't Actually True (Sorry Harry Truman)
I hate to be a total Thanksgiving grinch, but almost everything you think you know about Thanksgiving history is wrong. Oh, who am I kidding — I love being a Thanksgiving grinch. And it's not just because tryptophan makes me feel woozy — it's because our modern ideas of Thanksgiving are built on an idealized historical version of that first pilgrim harvest festival. But the first Thanksgiving — and many of the Thanksgivings that followed — most definitely did not go down the way you learned they did in elementary school.
Scholars agree that the first Plymouth Thanksgiving, which lasted for three days, occurred in the fall of 1621, with 90 Native Americans and 50 white settlers in attendance. But after that, the picture gets fuzzy. Was it a straight-up harvest festival or a religious celebration? Did the Native Americans attend because they were actually friends with the settlers, or just because they wanted to try to keep the peace with their new neighbors? Did anyone actually eat turkey? Did anyone actually wear those goofy buckled hats? Was this even actually the first Thanksgiving?
For a holiday based so solidly on the idea of tradition, there's a lot of confusion about what actually went on. So, allow me to rain on your Thanksgiving Day parade with the nine holiday truth bombs below, all of which pair nicely with a plate of marshmallow yams, some stuffing, and a pair of pants with an elastic waist band.
MYTH: THE FIRST THANKSGIVING FEAST WAS HELD IN PLYMOUTH, MA
Truth: The first European Thanksgiving celebration documented in North America was held in Newfoundland in 1587, with similar celebrations occurring in Texas in 1598, Maine in 1607, and in Virginia in 1610. The Plymoth colonists do bear the distinction of being the first group of Europeans to hold Thanksgiving celebrations more than once — the Maine, Virgina, and Newfoundland ones appear to have been one-off —though they held their second Thanksgiving in June of 1623. And, of course, Native American thanksgiving celebrations and ancient European harvest festivals, which helped inspire modern Thanksgivings, were celebrated for centuries before those Plymouth pilgrims decided to get their food coma on.
MYTH: PEOPLE ATE TURKEY AT THE FIRST THANKSGIVING
Truth: The guests at the first Thanksgiving ate some kind of bird — though which bird it was that they chowed down on remains anyone's guess. Edward Wilson, the settler whose letters about the first Plymouth Thanksgiving are where most of our knowledge about the event comes from, mentioned eating fowl, but he never specified what kind of bird; the only meat he specified the settlers eating was venison. Our idea of turkeys as the main Thanksgiving attraction actually comes from the Victorians, who celebrated Thanksgiving by eating the birds. Honestly, given the location, the first Thanksgiving was just as likely to have included lobster and oysters, since seafood was plentiful in the area. And there weren't any potatoes or sweet potatoes at the first Thanksgiving table, either — neither vegetable was in common use in North America at the time.
MYTH: PILGRIMS WORE BUCKLES ON THEIR HATS AND SHOES
Truth: While wearing a hat with shiny buckle on it is the easiest way to show that you're dressed as a pilgrim and not, oh, let's say, Abraham Lincoln or MacBeth or something, the actual pilgrims didn't actually wear buckles. Buckles weren't in fashion at the time of the first Thanksgiving, and because the pilgrims were nothing if not fashion forward, they actually used leather laces on their shoes. Buckles became fashionable towards the tail end of the 17th century, and were later depicted in paintings of the pilgrims because buckles were considered "quaint."
MYTH: THE PILGRIMS CALLED THEMSELVES PILGRIMS
Truth: Like lots of historical nicknames, this nickname was never used by the actual people it describes. The pilgrims referred to themselves as "saints," which meant that they had come to North America to practice religion (not that they thought that they were actual saints).
MYTH: THE PILGRIMS ONLY WORE BLACK AND WHITE CLOTHES
Truth: In paintings of the pilgrims, there's so much black clothing, the early settlers generally look they're on line to get into a Cure concert. But in their actual day-to-day lives, pilgrims wore colorful clothes, in shades of blue, red, gray, and yellow. Some historians have speculated that the reason pilgrims were so frequently depicted in all black was because most of the era's formal clothing was black — you'd put on your best clothing when you went to get your portrait painted, which is why all of our historical documents of the pilgrims have them dolled up like Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice.
MYTH: NATIVE AMERICANS Were All About Thanksgiving
Truth: While 90 Wampanoag tribe members attended the Plymouth Thanksgiving, historians believe that their presence was primarily a political gesture — the Wampanoag had their own thanksgiving celebrations that they had been practicing long before the pilgrims arrived in North America, and they never attended another pilgrim Thanksgiving. In light of the vast devastation, genocide, and theft that white settlers inflicted on Native Americans and their culture in the centuries that followed, many Native Americans have chosen to recognize Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning, with Plymouth itself serving as a spot where many Native Americans gather to commemorate the damage inflicted on their culture by white American settlers.
MYTH: THANKSGIVING HAS ALWAYS BEEN AN ANNUAL, NATIONAL HOLIDAY IN THE U.S.
Truth: Though George Washington urged Americans to observe a day dedicated to giving thanks in 1789 — and John Adams and James Madison issued similar one-time proclamations to the American people — Abraham Lincoln was the first president to declare Thanksgiving an actual national holiday. Lincoln was persuaded to do this by a magazine editor named Sarah Hale, who believed that Thanksgiving should be celebrated on one set day throughout the nation. Prior to this, states celebrated their own Thanksgivings on different days, with many states not celebrating the holiday at all. Hale had petitioned several previous presidents about the issue, too, and they all blew her off — but Lincoln went for it, declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday on October 3, 1863.
MYTH: THANKSGIVING HAS ALWAYS BEEN CELEBRATED ON THE FOURTH THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER
Truth: The first Plymouth Thanksgiving may not have even been celebrated in November— historians think it occurred some time between late September and early November, with most thinking it occurred near the September 29 holiday of Michaelmas. But even after Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday, the date was the focus of political turmoil and conflict. Though Lincoln had established Thanksgiving as the final Thursday of November, President Franklin Roosevelt moved it to the fourth Thursday in November in 1939, sparking a political controversy that wasn't settled for two entire years.
MYTH: HARRY TRUMAN PERFORMED THE FIRST PRESIDENTIAL TURKEY PARDON
Truth: The presidential turkey pardon is always a weird bit of showmanship — especially since the pardoned turkeys usually die within a few months of their pardon, rather than living out their golden years playing canasta in some fabulous old turkey's home in Florida. But this bizarre tradition, while usually credited to Harry Truman, is actually a much more recent phenomenon.
In the early 20th century, sending the First Family a turkey for Thanksgiving was a popular activity —even Girl Scout troupes got in on the act. Truman received two turkeys in December 1948 from the poultry industry — which cemented the tradition of the president receiving turkeys from a business, rather than random folks. But Truman definitely didn't pardon either of those gobblers — he remarked that the birds would make for a tasty Christmas dinner. In 1963, John F. Kennedy was presented with a turkey and remarked, "Let's keep him going;" and a Washington Post article about the comment was the first to use the word "reprieve" and "pardon" to describe a turkey, and formed the basis for the modern turkey pardon. (Now, if only he'd said something about every American being entitled to consume their own weight in gravy, we'd be in business.)
Images: Giphy (10)