In many ways, Thanksgiving incorporates the very history of America. But there are many myths surrounding the holiday and the first feast held by the Pilgrims in 1621:
- The pilgrims started Thanksgiving: Settlers in the New World survived a horrific first winter, saved only by Native Americans who befriended them, gave them with food and taught them to cultivate corn. They decided to celebrate the next harvest with a grand feast, but recorded history does not include the word “thanksgiving.”
- The first feast included all Pilgrims: History says it wasn’t just a dinner. It lasted three days, and only about 50 Pilgrims came — all men. There were almost twice as many Wampanoag Indians in attendance (also all men). It was considered a political gathering, with the two sides cementing a military alliance. The women undoubtedly did the cooking, and the feast was held outdoors to accommodate a large crowd.
- The guests ate turkey: Historians don’t believe so. Most accounts say the Native Americans brought five deer with them, while the settlers brought fowl, but probably ducks and geese, which were plentiful in autumn.
- They ate pumpkin pie for dessert: There most certainly were cooked pumpkins on the menu, but not pies. Those sweet desserts would not show up for another generation at least.
- It was a dry first Thanksgiving: On the contrary, that first feast included copious amounts of beer and wine, which was much safer to drink than the local water.
- The feast included cranberries: Cranberries may have been served but not as a sweet sauce or relish. Sweet cranberries need maple syrup, an ingredient that wasn’t plentiful till 60 years later.
- The modern Thanksgiving was President Abraham Lincoln’s idea: Actually, author and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale led a 40-year campaign to start Thanksgiving. She wrote many editorials championing her cause in her Ladies’ Magazine. Hale’s campaign became a reality when, in 1863, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.
- Americans have always eaten turkey for Thanksgiving: Again we have Hale to thank for the modern Thanksgiving experience. She read about the 1621 feast and decided to use it as a model for an annual holiday. She published in the popular “Godey’s Lady’s Book” recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, starting traditions that had nothing to do with the colonists.
- Lincoln started the presidential pardon of a turkey: The tradition dates back to 1989, when president George H.W. Bush officially pardoned the first one. According to legend, Lincoln’s 10-year-old son Tad supposedly became fond of a turkey given to the family for a holiday feast, and begged his father to save it. Lincoln did. The only problem with that as a Thanksgiving story is that Tad’s plea was to save the Christmas turkey!