It turns out that, like with seemingly everything else, there are a lot of misconceptions and rewritten history regarding Thanksgiving. So, while you’re sitting down to your turkey dinner tomorrow, here are some conversation starters.
George Mason University’s History News Network recently debunked ten Thanksgiving myths on WMUR through historian Rick Shenkman:
Myth #1: The Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving.
According to the History News Network, at least two other places claim to have held earlier Thanksgiving celebrations: San Elizario, Texas, in 1598; and the Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Virginia in 1619. The traditional first Thanksgiving involving the Pilgrims occurred in 1621.
You know, it seems obvious when you think about it that surely a group of people had sat down together to celebrate thanks on mainland America prior to the Pilgrims. I feel like my first grade teacher misled me. Badly.
Myth #2: Thanksgiving was about family.
Focusing on the traditional 1621 celebration in Plymouth, Shenkman said it was impossible that the festival was about family—it was a multicultural event. “If it had been about family,” he said, “the pilgrims never would have invited the Indians to join them.”
I’m not expert on the lives of Pilgrims, but I’ve read a lot of books; the impression I get is that every day was about family. The memorable 1621 celebration was clearly a little bit more than that. Even if it wasn’t the first such celebration.
That said, though, I do have to say that Thanksgiving might well be the most commonly celebrated holiday dedicated solely to family in modern America. For that, I choose to ignore this particular myth.
Myth #3: Thanksgiving was about religion.
Again, Shenkman said the Puritans never would have invited the Indians to the festival if it was religious. “Pilgrims would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event,” he said. During an actual religious “thanksgiving”, they would have spent the day praying, not eating.
Not to further bash on my first grade teacher (a lovely woman, by the way, who very calmly took away Stephen King’s Cujo from under my desk when I was supposed to be practicing my addition), but I kind of resent having a thirty-year-old visual image of Pilgrims and Indians (and the article says “Indians”, so I’m going with that rather than with the more PC “Native American”) sharing food and praying together side by side. I mean, I can’t get Squanto and Priscilla Mullins’ future husband John Alden breaking bread, clasping hands, whatever out of my mind.
Myth #4: The Pilgrims ate turkey.
No one knows, actually, the historian said. They were used to eating turkey, but it isn’t known if they ate it at the festival. He said the only food they had for sure was deer. They didn’t have corn, potatoes, or even cranberries.
All right, true confession time. I hate traditional Thanksgiving food—I hate turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green been casserole, peas, and so on (my grandfather always supplemented our Thanksgiving spread with steak and lobster pie so myself and my pickier relatives had more than just bread and mashed potatoes on our plates—yes, I was a spoiled brat). The fact that it’s all a farce, that we’d all be pigging out on venison if we wanted to be true to the Pilgrims … well, it makes me smile a little.
Myth #5: The Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.
Shenkman quotes another historian on this one, George Willison, who said the entire legend that the Pilgrims landed on the rock rests on dubious testimony. Besides, he said, the Pilgrims made their first landfall at Provincetown, on the other side of Cape Cod Bay.
This kind of bums me out. I’ve been to Plymouth Rock. I went on the replica Mayflower. My sixteenth birthday present was a trip to Plimouth Plantation (yes, I was a spoiled brat from a family based in the education field). It was so cool … and it’s not real? I have to hit the Cape to get the real experience? Daaaaaaaaaaamn.
Myth #6: Pilgrims lived in log cabins.
The log cabin did not appear in America until the later part of the century. Log cabins were virtually unknown in England at the time the Pilgrims moved to Massachusetts, Shenkman said. They actually lived in wood clapboard houses made from sawed lumber.
Why do I seem to remember that pilgrims lived in something called longhouses? Is that the same thing as a clapboard house? I kind of saw it as more of a dormitory-like kind of thing. Wow, I guess it wasn’t just my first grade teacher that dropped the ball … I should probably have learned this somewhere along the way.
Myth #7: Pilgrims dressed in black.
The George Mason University historian said not only did they not dress in black, they didn’t wear the big buckles or steeple hats normally associated with them. Another historian, James W. Baker, said the Pilgrim fashion plate was crafted in the 19th century to help paint the pilgrims as quaint.
Haha, it was all a big lie to make America’s forefathers appear austere and uniform. I love this James W. Baker guy. Ha!
Myth #8: Pilgrims and Puritans were the same thing.
They were different groups. The Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower and lived in Plymouth, Shenkman said. The Puritans arrived a decade later and settled in Boston. The Pilgrims had varied reasons for making the journey to America. The Puritans came only in search of religious freedom.
Yeah, I got fed the line about Pilgrims wanting the freedom to practice their own religion. In fact, I fed that line to my six-year-old tonight. The blame I was trying to shift to my first grade teacher clearly sits on my own shoulders as well.
Myth #9: Puritans hated sex.
Shenkman said the Puritans actually welcomed the act as a “God-given responsibility”. He said [Cotton] Mather condemned a married couple who had abstained from sex to achieve a higher spirituality. Mather said they were the victims of “blind zeal”.
Bam! Take that, Ladies Against Feminism!
Myth #10: Puritans hated fun.
“The Puritans welcomed laughter and dressed in bright colors (or, to be precise, the middle and upper classes dressed in bright colors; members of the lower classes were not permitted to indulge themselves—they dressed in dark clothes),” Shenkman said. They were painted as fun-haters in the 19th century, he said.
Perhaps this myth is why society seems to be getting worse and worse with each passing generation. You set the bar way too high in the 19th century, people!
Anyway, this gave me a lot to think about, a lot to reflect on, and a great deal of discussion I look forward to having with my family. Uh … heads up to any of my family members that might be reading this right now!