armchair cultural observation since 1995

Thanksgiving myths

Apparently, debunking Thanksgiving myths has become a regular sport in recent years for historians both amateur and professional seeking proof behind many of the common myths we see portrayed and written about Thanksgiving this time of year.

Dozens of Web site have articles, quizzes and school curriculum dedicated to debunking myths about buckled hats, Pilgrim-Native American relations, religion and presidental turkey pardons.

One scholar even claims that  much of the debunking of Thanksgiving myths has become a myth of its own.

Below is a list of 10 myths we dug up in our search.

1. The pilgrims were the first to have a Thanksgiving – Texans claim the first Thanksgiving actually took place in a small town near El Paso in 1598, 23 years before the Pilgrims’ festival. Floridians claim an even earlier Thanksgiving occurred in September 1565. Source | Source

2. The pilgrims were celebrating a plentiful harvest – The harvest of 1621, the year the legend supposedly began, was not great at all. The barley, wheat and peas the Pilgrims had brought to the U.S. from England had apparently failed. The corn, however, did do well enough for them to double their weekly food rations. Source

3. The Pilgrims ate turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.– The first Thanksgiving meal the pilgrims ate is not documented. The holiday itself did not become an official U.S. holiday until the 1860s. Source

4. The Native Americans brought popcorn to the pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving. -Though often repeated as fact, there apparently isn’t any documentation of it. Source

5. The first Thanksgiving was held the fourth Thursday in November. -The feast is said to most likely have occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11. Source

6. The Pilgrims wore black and white with buckled shoes and hats. -Buckles apparently didn’t come into fashion until later in the 17th century. The Pilgrims were said to have only worn black and white on Sundays, but either way there isn’t any documentation of what they would have worn on their first Thanksgiving. Source

7. The Pilgrims and the Native Americans became great friends. -Apparently it only took a generation to pass before the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe were engaging in battle. Source

8. The Pilgrims had an alcohol-free Thanksgiving feast. -It’s not documented either way, but the Pilgrims are said to have not been teetotalers. Source

9. The Founding Fathers made Thanksgiving a national holiday. -A magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale is given more credit for making it a national holiday than any of the founding fathers. She conducted a letter-writing campaign in the mid-19th century – President Lincoln responded in 1863 by issuing a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November for gratitude. Source

10. Eating turkey makes people especially sleepy. -This is often credited to the tryptophnan, an amino acid contained in turkey that can act as a sedative, but it apparently also exists in many other food items we eat and can only have an effect in large quantities on an empty stomach without any protein present. Source

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