15 Thanksgiving “Facts” That Are Not True
You're about to have some serious misgivings about what you think you know about Thanksgiving.
There are a few popular Thanksgiving misconceptions
It’s one of American history’s most familiar scenes: A small group of Pilgrims prepares a huge November feast to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and show their appreciation to the Indians who helped them survive their first winter. Together, the Pilgrims and Indians solemnly sit down to a meal of turkey, pumpkin pie, and cranberries. But just how accurate is this image of America’s first Thanksgiving? Not very, it turns out. Here are some common misconceptions about the origin of one of our favorite holidays. That the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock is one of 51 “facts” that are actually wrong.
The first Thanksgiving was actually “Thanksgiving”
When we talk about the “first” Thanksgiving, we’re usually referring to the festive meal held in the autumn of 1621 in the Plymouth settlement, where the European settlers mingled with members of the native Wampanoag tribe. But that festive meal wasn’t what the settlers thought of as “Thanksgiving.” To the settlers, Thanksgiving was a completely separate, solemnly religious holiday during which people gathered together to pray. Here are 12 untold stories of Native American heroes.
The Native Americans were invited guests
Notice how we said that the Wampanoag “mingled” with the European settlers at this 1621 feast? That’s because we can’t really say for sure that the settlers actually invited any Native Americans. Rather, there’s reason to believe party-crashing was involved. “Some accounts suggest that about 90 Wampanoag heard the settlers firing guns and came to see the cause of the stir or even ready to enter battle,” according to Fortune magazine.
Thanksgiving is “Turkey Day”
While wild turkey was available in abundance in Plymouth, as were ducks and geese, the real headliner for the autumnal feast of 1621 was venison. In fact, it was the Native Americans who made that possible. According to Edward Winslow, who wrote one of the only two first-hand accounts of the autumnal feast of 1621 that we’ve come to think of as the “first Thanksgiving”), the Wampanoags brought five slaughtered deer with them when they turned up for dinner. Pardoning the turkey is strictly a modern-day tradition.
The “first Thanksgiving” was a joyous celebration
While the feast that occurred in the fall of 1621 celebrated the harvest, it was not a joyous occasion. In the fall of 1620, around 100 Europeans set sail on the Mayflower, intending to land at the mouth of the Hudson River. They landed instead in Cape Cod Harbor in December of that same year. By the fall of 1621, half were dead, mostly as a result of illness and poor nutrition. With half their number having recently died, the “first Thanksgiving” was probably more of a “wake” (think: drinking, socializing, and remembering the dearly departed) than a celebration. If you’re hosting, get your hands on these products that can fix any Thanksgiving emergency.
Thanksgiving was always a family-oriented celebration
The settlers who died on the Mayflower voyage were primarily women; at the time of the autumnal feast of 1621, there were only four women left in Plymouth. They were Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White (who later became Susanna Winslow after she was widowed and married Edward Winslow). They must have proliferated, though, as one in ten Americans could be a blood relative of the original Pilgrims.
The “first Thanksgiving” was the beginning of an American tradition
What we think of as the “first Thanksgiving” was actually a one-time thing. The people who held that “first Thanksgiving” didn’t hold another autumnal feast for at least another decade. And what we think of as “Thanksgiving” today (the holiday that falls on the fourth Thursday of every November) didn’t exist as an annual American holiday until 1863 after a proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. Find out the surprising presidential first Lincoln has the honor of holding.
Thanksgiving was celebrated by the “Pilgrims”
You might be noticing by now that we have yet to call the settlers who celebrated that first autumnal feast of 1621, “Pilgrims.” That’s because they didn’t even call themselves “Pilgrims.” The people we think of as the “Pilgrims” were actually referred to themselves as the “Saints.” This year, rent these helpful items for a stress-free Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving originated in New England
Thanksgiving, as we know it today, actually originated in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On October 3, 1863, during President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, he announced, basically, that from now on, the nation will celebrate an official “Thanksgiving holiday” on the fourth Thursday of November each year.
Thanksgiving began in 1621
While we associate the origins of the Thanksgiving feast with 1621, Texans claim they celebrated the first “Thanksgiving” in a community near present day El Paso in 1598. The occasion was the arrival Spanish explorer, Juan de Onate with hundreds of Spanish settlers after a grueling 350-mile trek across the Mexican dessert. Virginians claim they celebrated the first “Thanksgiving” in 1619 to mark the arrival of 38 English settlers on a ship called “The Margaret.” These funny “Thanksgiving helpline” calls will make you laugh.
Thanksgiving was always the 4th Thursday of November
The “first Thanksgiving” was held sometime between September and November of 1621. Until 1863, there was no particular date associated with the holiday we now think of as Thanksgiving. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt shifted the day to the third Thursday in November in order to extend the Christmas season in the hopes of boosting the economy. But in 1941, bowing to Congressional pressure, Roosevelt changed it back to the fourth Thursday, where it’s remained ever since.
Thanksgiving always involved a feast
The first “Thanksgiving Proclamation” was issued by President James Madison in 1815. It was to be a one-time-only day of prayer and fasting in thanks to God for the conclusion of the War of 1812.
Thanksgiving involved a single meal
That first autumnal feast of 1621 that we think of as the first Thanksgiving actually ran for a total of three days. While we can’t promise that our ultimate Thanksgiving menu will rival the original three-day autumnal feast of 1621, your guests will certainly be happy you tried.
Pumpkin pie has anything to do with Thanksgiving
While there was plenty of venison and fowl, and possibly plenty of mussels lobster, grapes, plums, and corn, at the autumnal feast of 1621, there was no butter and no flour, so pumpkin pie (and any pie, for that matter) was out of the question. Can you guess America’s favorite Thanksgiving pie?
Sweet potatoes have anything to do with Thanksgiving
While sweet potato cultivation dates back at least as far as 750 B.C. and possibly as far back as 2500 B.C., there were no sweet potatoes in North America at the time of the autumnal feast of 1621 that we’ve come to associate with Thanksgiving. Here’s the best Thanksgiving dish according to your Zodiac sign.
Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday
“The United States isn’t the only place in the world where people give thanks annually. And it’s definitely not the first country in the world to begin the tradition,” writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. As far back as at least 2,500 years ago, the Chinese were celebrating their own version of Thanksgiving. Japan’s Thanksgiving dates back 2,000 years. Germany, Canada, Granada, Libera, Vietnam, and South Korea are among some of the other nations that celebrate a “Thanksgiving” holiday. To keep a Thanksgiving mindset year-round, learn the habits of naturally grateful people.
- History.com: “Mayflower Myths”
- Fortune magazine: “Thanksgiving Myths, Legends and Lies: Why Settlers Really Started the Annual Feast”
- Library of Congress: “A Sweet Potato Mystery”
- The New York Times: “Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong”
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Did you know these 8 countries celebrate their own Thanksgiving?”