Why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving (when the Pilgrims ate deer)--and other holiday myths
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!
| November 26, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories: Civics Education | Tags: Thanksgiving, historical myth, history
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