Tomorrow is the national Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. I thought it would be a good time to review some of the common myths about the holiday. Most notably the most persistent or famous ones. There will be no new ground broken here today. Just a review of some well-documented over shared and misunderstood myths.
Myths or Truths
- The Pilgrims Had The First Thanksgiving: Truthfully there are many possible answers to this question. The answer depends upon your defining parameters. Does it mean the first Thanksgiving celebrated in what would eventually become the continental US? Or does it mean when it became a official federal holiday? What are the defining factors that make it different from other harvest celebrations? Every parameter changes the answer. There are multiple claimants. Texans claim the first Thanksgiving in America actually took place in little San Elizario, a community near El Paso, in 1598 — twenty-three years before the Pilgrims’ festival. For several years they have staged a reenactment of the event that culminated in the Thanksgiving celebration: the arrival of Spanish explorer Juan de Onate on the banks of the Rio Grande. De Onate is said to have held a big Thanksgiving festival after leading hundreds of settlers on a grueling 350-mile long trek across the Mexican desert. Virginians also claim the “first”. At the Berkeley Plantation on the James River they claim the first Thanksgiving in America was held there on December 4th, 1619….two years before the Pilgrims’ festival….and every year since 1958 they have reenacted the event. In their view it’s not the Mayflower we should remember, it’s the Margaret, the little ship which brought 38 English settlers to the plantation in 1619. The story is that the settlers had been ordered by the London company that sponsored them to commemorate the ship’s arrival with an annual day of Thanksgiving. Hardly anybody outside Virginia has ever heard of this Thanksgiving, but in 1963 President Kennedy officially recognized the plantation’s claim. The nationally recognized event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. This feast lasted three days, and it was attended by 90 Native Americans (as accounted by attendee Edward Winslow) and 53 Pilgrims. This celebration was officially made a national holiday by president Lincoln. He chose the date. It should be noted that pilgrims at plimoth did not really get associated with the holiday until it was nationallized. So what is the true answer? They are all right and none of them are. There is probably no true historical truth here, so I go with the modern tradition.
- Thanksgiving is a secular holiday: Possibly false. In modern times it is considered to a be “A Day to Give Thanks”. Sounds very broad and is not associated with any specific belief system. Truthfully thanksgiving’s origins as a national holiday are very non-secular. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”—days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought. In the original adoption of the official US holiday “President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”. So it is probably a Non-secular holiday. I suggest Festivus as a true secular holiday. Some will argue that Pilgrims would not have let savage natives attend their religious events. I find that argument very weak. Given the fact that every event for colony a founded on a religion, was religious in nature. Unlikely to be truly multicultural and secular.
- Pilgrims ate wild Turkey at Thanksgiving: Probably False. It is true that they may have eaten a wide variety of wild birds at the thanksgiving meal. There is no evidence that turkey specifically was among them. The primary meat would have been venison. Pumpkin pie and silverware was also off the dinner table at that time in history. There would have been no sugar to make any sweet items. There were no honeybees, and hence no honey at that time in north america. Turkey and Cranberry sauce is an invention of the Victorian celebration of Thanksgiving. Despite the fact that you often see cartoon turkeys dressed up like a “pilgrim”. There was probably no tom turkey on the table. Which leads us to the next myth.
- Pilgrims Clothing: The prototypical image of the stoutly dressed pilgrims all in black and white with animal skin dressed native Americans… false. At least for the pilgrims. As far as can be determined from renderings at the time. Pilgrims did not wear black all the time, and they did not wear the prototypical pilgrim hat. None of their clothing was adorned with large square belt buckles. Plymouth(Plimoth) Plantation historian James W. Baker explains that in the nineteenth century, when the popular image of the Pilgrims was formed, buckles served as a kind of emblem of quaintness. That’s the reason illustrators gave Santa buckles. Even the blunderbuss, with which Pilgrims are identified, was a symbol of quaintness. The blunderbuss was mainly used to control crowds. It wasn’t a hunting rifle. But it looks out of date and fits the Pilgrim stereotype.
- The Tryptophan in the turkey puts me to sleep: False. As it turns out, turkey contains no more of the amino acid tryptophan than other kinds of poultry. In fact, turkey actually has slightly less tryptophan than chicken. Tryptophan is a amino acid that stimulates serotonin. There is no direct serotonin effect when you digest triptophan from other animals. It is the giant plates of high fat food you consume that stimulates a rest and digest time.
- The First Thanksgiving was the seminal event that birthed the end of Native American Culture and population: False. There is no doubt that the arrival in north america by Europeans would mark the end of the native american dominance. The pilgrims were hardly the first. The Plimoth pilgrims specifically had little to do with that. In fact the Pilgrims of Plimoth Plantation had very cordial relations with the natives compared to the other pilgrims of Jamestown colony. There are many reasons that the Plymouth colony, fared better with the natives they would encounter. The first was that the general nature of the New England settlers they had a different focus. They were not economic opportunists like the Jamestown settlers. In Plimoth they were only attempting to flee persecution and therefore did not aggressively seek to acquire native land. The Jamestown colony attempted to make a profit from the tobacco trade to send back home. This required more and more native land. Another positive New England factor was the sparsely populated land. It is no surprise that, if given a choice, New Englander or Native alike would prefer southern winters to New England winters, and thus there were vast areas that were completely un-populated, making it less of an impossibility that the two groups could live side by side without feeling threatened by any hostility. The spot where the Plymouth settlers put up their dwellings was a site that had been cleared by a former group of Indians that had been wiped out by smallpox given them by a European trading encounter. Not knowing this, the Plymouth group assumed that the easily available land had been left there by God. Another nearly miraculous bit of good luck for the Plymouth group was their amazing meeting up with Squanto, an obviously rare American Native that had spent time in Europe and had learned English. He himself had also learned that there were differences from cruel and oppressive Englishmen and those who just attempted to survive and evade that persecution, so he did not automatically view the Plymouth colony with suspicion. Squanto was responsible for what may have been an amalgamated Thanksgiving feast, with a combination of foods and technologies that the Pilgrims had brought from home and much more vital ones that they had learned to glean from the land to survive. Squanto also helped the group to mitigate other meetings with natives that they would eventually have. As far as we can tell the Plimoth pilgrims lived in peace and cooperation with the natives for the most part until the start of the larger and more fundamental puritan Massachusetts bay colony.
Bottom line Thanksgiving enthusiasts, enjoy your pilgrim dressed turkey centerpiece, blame the sleepiness on the turkey and not the seconds and/or thirds, feel free to skip saying grace. It is a celebration after all. One day when the pegasus galaxy megamind robots unearth our ancient long dead civilization. They will get to wonder what it all really meant.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!