The turkey. The buckle on the black Pilgrim hat. The Indians in their loincloths. Everyone remembers his or her “First Thanksgiving” pageant in elementary school—the dutiful play acting of the 1621 3-day feast of thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. But how much of this is actual history and how much of this is romanticized mythology? Separate Thanksgiving fact from fiction before you pass the stuffing and cranberry sauce this November.
Myth #1:The Pilgrims Held the First Thanksgiving
Almost every child’s history textbook displays one of several depictions of the First Thanksgiving—the one with Pilgrims and Indians that we all learn about in school. But was this the first such celebration in American history? Doubtful—although it depends on whose history you’re looking at. Michael Gannon, a history professor at the University of Florida, proposes Spaniard Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ 1565 mass of thanksgiving, held with native tribes in the St. Augustine area, as the real first Thanksgiving. But if Menendez celebrated mass for his sound arrival, it’s equally probable that other Spanish (or even French) explorers—who would have been fellow Catholics—might have given thanks with masses for their own safely concluded voyages in the years prior to Menendez’s feast. Native Americans, of course, had their own feasts of gratitude long before European exploration, though they may not have explicitly called them such; the Green Corn Ceremony of the Cherokee, for example, expressed thanksgiving for a good corn crop. Will all fifth graders continue making tall paper hats and cardboard shoe buckles to celebrate their Pilgrim forefathers? Perhaps. However, there are clearly other Thanksgiving narratives from which to choose.
Myth #2: Pilgrims Wore Black, and Indians Wore Loincloths
And on the subject of dressing for dinner, dismiss the idea that the Pilgrims were all a bunch of dour, black-and-buckle-wearing sourpusses. Portrait painters of the time would have portrayed the wealthy in their paintings—and the wealthy would have been able to afford the expensive black formalwear favored by the 17th century elite. But the average person would have worn a variety of colors—russets, browns, beiges, blues, etc. The buckle on the hat? An 18th century anachronism. Artists of the 19th century perpetuated this romantic stereotype; while many modern textbooks are taking pains to correct this, most children won’t escape elementary school without painting that traditional yellow buckle on a black construction paper hat.
And loincloths in New England . . . in November? As hale and hardy as the Native Americans must have been to survive in what could be a harsh environment, they probably had more sense than that.
Myth #3: The Pilgrims Kept Thanksgiving as an Annual Tradition
Not exactly, although some of their descendents held a Forefathers’ Day celebration later. Thanksgiving wasn’t actually called “Thanksgiving” until much later, and it wasn’t repeated (feasts of thanksgiving were not annual occurrences for the Pilgrims, but specific—and usually religious—events held to commemorate divine blessings). National days of thanksgiving were held sporadically through the 18th century, and by the 1840s, most states in the union were celebrating some form of the holiday; however, the actual date was not standardized. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, lobbied for a national Thanksgiving in the 1840s and 1850s, but it wasn’t until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln, facing the prospect of a nation divided by war, instituted the federal holiday. The day was set for the last Thursday in November, though this was briefly modified to the second-to-last Thursday of November between 1939-1941 so as to extend the Christmas shopping season and help the nation recover from the effects of the Great Depression. In 1941 it was legally established as the fourth Thursday in November.
Myth #4: The Pilgrims Ate Turkey at the First Thanksgiving
From the succulent scent of turkey hovering over countless American dining room tables to the giant Macy’s turkey hovering over the streets of New York in the annual Thanksgiving parade, this bird has achieved icon status. But while turkey is native to America, it’s just as feasible that the celebrants that first year ate deer, geese, or even lobster and mussels. Never mind cranberry sauce, potatoes, or pumpkin pie—none of these probably made the original Thanksgiving spread, either. Whatever they did eat at Plimoth Plantation in 1621, we know this much: they did not do so with forks.
An “authentic” Thanksgiving is a far cry from Norman Rockwell—really, the only commonality among the “firsts” is that they all involved food and giving thanks.