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15 Thanksgiving “Facts” That Are Not True

You're about to have some serious misgivings about what you think you know about Thanksgiving.

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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 1621Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

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.

A row of Indian corn.Dee Golden/Shutterstock

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.

TurkeyBrent Hofacker/Shutterstock

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.

macy's thanksgiving paradeJStone/Shutterstock

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. 

Young black adult woman and her daughter holding hands and saying grace with their multi generation family at the Thanksgiving dinner table, detail, focus on foregroundMonkey Business Images/Shutterstock

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.

top view of cutlery, candles and autumn decor on served tableLightField Studios/Shutterstock

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, Pilgrims holding bibles, ca 1800s.Everett Historical/Shutterstock

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. 

Iconic statue of Abraham Lincoln, sculpted by Daniel Chester French, is in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.TJ Brown/Shutterstock

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.

Fall decor for Thanksgiving Day with pumpkins, leaves, apples, lights on wooden table. View from above. Horizontal orientation. Centerpieces Thanksgiving.Svetlana Cherruty/Shutterstock

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. 

president roosevelt thanksgivingEverett Collection/Shutterstock

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.

15 Things You Should Never, Ever Discuss at Thanksgiving DinnerBrent Hofacker/Shutterstock

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.

People Cheers Celebrating Thanksgiving Holiday ConceptRawpixel.com/Shutterstock

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-pieBrent Hofacker/shutterstock

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?

An overhead photo of roasted sweet potatoes in a pan, shot from above on dark rustic wooden textures with rosemary branches, with a place for textPlateresca/Shutterstock

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.

american flag with fall foliageJoy Brown/Shutterstock

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.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.