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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 11/26/2009

Why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving (when the Pilgrims ate deer)--and other holiday myths

By Valerie Strauss

This is the Thanksgiving story you probably learned in school:

In 1621, Pilgrims, dressed in black and white with buckles on their shoes, held a feast in Plymouth Colony to celebrate their first harvest. They invited Wampanoag Indians, and everyone gobbled down turkey and pumpkin pie.

It turns out that only some of that is true.

Historians, including those at Plimoth Plantation, a living museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, say that there was indeed a feast that year shared by the colonists and Indians. Squanto, who had learned English, served as translator.

But nobody knows whether turkey was really on the menu--and it wasn’t until the 1800s that it became the staple of the Thanksgiving holiday meal.

At the 1621 feast, deer was served, and the colonists were accustomed to eating turkey but there is no record that it was part of the feast. Pumpkin was available, but it is not likely the colonists whipped up a pie; sweet potatoes were unknown to the colonists, and cranberries may have been served but not as a sauce or relish.

The Pilgrims, incidentally did not dress every day in black and white and didn’t have buckles on their shoes.

As for the feast being the first Thanksgiving, nobody at the time thought of it as the start of a new tradition. There was another feast in the colony in 1623 -- but it was held earlier in the year. Then, in later years, different colonies celebrated their own days of thanksgiving during the year.

Americans started eating turkey for Thanksgiving in the mid-1800s. A popular magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale read about the 1621 feast and decided to use it as a model for an annual holiday. She published recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and started traditions that had nothing to do with the colonists.

The first time Thanksgiving was celebrated nationally was in 1789, when President George Washington made Thursday, Nov. 26, a holiday. In1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared that the fourth Thursday of November would be celebrated as Thanksgiving.

And about the presidential turkey pardon ..... President Obama pardoned Courage the Turkey yesterday, just as the commander in chief has done since ... 1989. That’s when President George H.W. Bush officially pardoned the first one.

You may have heard that the tradition has roots in the Lincoln White House. In 1863, Lincoln’s 10-year-old son, Tad, became fond of a turkey given to the family for a holiday feast. Tad named the turkey Jack and begged his dad to save the animal. Lincoln did.

The only problem with that as a Thanksgiving story is that Tad’s plea was to save the Christmas turkey!

By Valerie Strauss  | November 26, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Civics Education  | Tags:  Thanksgiving, historical myth, history  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Chemistry and Thanksgiving: Making lessons relevant
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The very first myth is your title.

The first Thanksgiving was in Berkeley Hundred - now Berkeley Plantation - near Jamestown in Virginia on December 4, 1619. This was over a year before those late-to-dinner Pilgrims turned on their ovens.

I would be good if you could get at least the basics right.

Posted by: JackESpratt | November 26, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Not sure what's wrong with the title--and nowhere did the author assert that the Pilgrims had the first Thanksgiving dinner! In fact, he explains that there were other feasts, in different colonies, at different times of the year. He's debunking the myths--and you've contributed one more piece, that there were earlier "firsts" contrary to popular beliefs.

Plus, can we prove that the *first* Thanksgiving happened in Virginia? No, because the historical records are likely sparse and there's likely more to unearth-- no doubt most colonies had first harvest feasts, first celebrations, with different foodstuffs than that in our current traditions. Another reason is that, as the author explains, Thanksgiving as we think of it now didn't become official for more than 150 years! Or, should that be 240+ years, picking Lincoln's declaration?

The basics are hard to get right--and that's the point of the article!

Posted by: Astrogal | November 26, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

It's about time that someone recognized the contributions of Sarah Hale, although she would have preferred that you use the title "editress." Her magazine had a circulation of 150,000 just before the Civil War, more than any other magazine of the time. She also led efforts to preserve Mount Vernon (so Virginians worried about Jamestown, shouldn't be in too much of a snit); helped found Vassar College; and wrote a book of poetry for children that included one titled "Mary's Lamb." Even if you can't recite the Thanksgiving story, you can recite that one.

Posted by: RossPhx | November 26, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

You really need to get your facts straight and so does the history books. The first Thanks Giving was in Virginia near Jamestown.

Posted by: ccnewber | November 26, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Turkey tastes like buzzard. If a Hispanic has to eat buzzard, then he has nothing to be thankful for.

Posted by: blasmaic | November 26, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Enter into the gate with thanksgiving and His courts and praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name. Psalms 100:4
I encourage you to give thanks not only as you gather with love ones around the Thanksgiving table, but every day.
George Washington was a thankful man. Every morning his godly Christian knelt before a chair for Bible reading and in prayer holding a Bible and a lit candle one hour every morning and one hour ever evening. Not surprisingly Washington is the man who as president, first declared a national day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was made an annual national holiday when Abraham Lincoln was president. Lincoln accepted Christ at Gettysburg and soon after wrote a letter to his pastor in Illinois to share his conversion to Christ.

Posted by: Bill1776 | November 26, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

I love all the Thanksgiving myth busting articles around the Holidays. So the colonists were accustomed to eating turkey, there was a large feast, the records indicate "fowl" was eaten, but since there is no "record" specifically that turkey was eaten, the myth busters conclude it was a myth. Great evidence.


Posted by: uprtrp | November 26, 2009 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Bill1776: What's your source? As a historian, I'm not aware of any evidence that Lincoln ever "accepted Christ"--in fact, he was frequently criticized for not officially joining a church. And I have read doubts about Washington's membership in any church. (It's hard to determine, since Virginia had an established church for most of his life, but I do know that the story about Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge is just that--a story.)

Actually, I always thought the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving was just the usual Harvest Home celebration held throughout English society. (They sure didn't hold it outside in November in New England!)

Posted by: opinionatedreader | November 27, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

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