Each year, we sit down with our families for a Thanksgiving meal. We often eat turkey, we sometimes discuss what we’re thankful for, but rarely do we reflect on the origins of the holiday.
Most people are taught that the pilgrims came to North America from England in the 1600s. While many argue they came looking for religious freedom, a number of scholars argue this is not true. Many lives were lost to disease and starvation during a difficult first winter, but come Spring, the pilgrims had successfully grown food, which was celebrated with a three-day long feast along with members of the Wampanoag tribe. Together, the pilgrims and the Native Americans acknowledged what they were thankful for, and thus the term ‘Thanksgiving’ was derived.
The snippet above leaves out many essential parts of the Thanksgiving holiday, and unfortunately, many misconceptions about Thanksgiving have been imparted to young children through school materials as well as the media.
Read on to learn more about the origins of the holiday, the people involved, and criticism of the day we refer to as ‘Thanksgiving’.
1. The First Thanksgiving Dates Back to 1621
The first Thanksgiving dates back to 1621, when the Plymouth colonists and the Wampagoag Indians shared a harvest feast together.
In 1620, the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, to the tip of Cape Code, and eventually Massachusetts Bay, where a village was established. During that first winter in Massachusetts, many colonists died of disease, scurvy, starvation, and other outbreaks. According to History.com, only half lived to see Spring.
It wasn’t until the following October that the Pilgrims’ had their first successful corn harvest, which led to a feast that they invited their Native American allies to– this celebration is now considered the “first Thanksgiving” in a festival that lasted three days.
2. It Wasn’t Made a Federal Holiday Until 1863
It wasn’t until over two centuries after the first unofficial Thanksgiving that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated each November. (George Washington set the holiday aside as a national day of thanks in 1789, but it wasn’t celebrated consistently until President Lincoln issued the proclamation).
In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt ordered that the holiday be celebrated the fourth Thursday of the month to “extend the holiday shopping season by a week,” according to History.com. The decision was met with controversy, and it was not made official until the last Thursday in November.
3. There Was No Turkey
Lydia Hicks touches a cow as she feeds it in the 1627 Pilgrim Village at “Plimoth Plantation” where she and other role-players portray Pilgrims seven years after the arrival of the Mayflower November 17, 2005 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The 17th century replica village was the site of the first Thanksgiving in 1623. Thanksgiving Day, believed to have originally taken place at the end of July, was established as a national holiday by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and is celebrated on the last Thursday of November.
Today, we fill our plates with mashed potatoes, stuffing, turkey, and an array of pies to honor Thanksgiving. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these options weren’t available in the 17th century.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, turkey wasn’t the centerpiece of the meal– it was likely goose or duck. Based on the research of Kathleen Wall, a culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, it’s even possible people ate swan and passenger pigeons. “I also think some birds—in a lot of recipes you see this—were boiled first, then roasted to finish them off. Or things are roasted first and then boiled,” Wall tells Smithsonian Magazine. “The early roasting gives them nicer flavor, sort of caramelizes them on the outside and makes the broth darker.”
Onions and herbs would have provided most of the spices, along with shelled chestnuts. Seafood was also likely present at the ceremony– shellfish, eels, lobster, clams, and mussels.
4. The Holiday Is Recognized By Some As a ‘National Day of Mourning’
"@TeenVogue: Do U know the truth about #Thanksgiving? Watch 6 #NativeAmerican girls school us on the real history… pic.twitter.com/pL0hXSRoJa"
— Haida Princess (@HaidaPrincess) November 22, 2017
Over the decades, Thanksgiving has become a source of criticism, with many people choosing instead to refer to it as a Day of Mourning.
The National Day of Mourning is an annual protest carried out each year by Native Americans in New England as a way to remind people of the suffering that Native Americans experienced at the hands of the pilgrims.
Many truths about Thanksgiving have remained out of the medias’ depiction of the holiday. As noted by National Geographic, the pilgrims raided Native American graves a year before the first Thanksgiving. In desperation, having landed in New England without enough food to last them, it is believed that the pilgrims robbed Native American graves and storehouses not longer after arriving.
5. Many Historians Believe the Colonists and Native Americans Had a Contemptuous Relationship
Lydia Hicks tends to the cows in the 1627 Pilgrim Village at “Plimoth Plantation”.
For a number of reasons– some of which are outlined above– many historians believe that the colonists regarded the Native Americans as “uncivilized and satanic heathens”, in the words of the Huffington Post.
According to the New York Times, there is no evidence that Native Americans were even invited to the first Thanksgiving. The outlet cites this as possibly the biggest misconception of the holiday.
Kate Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Plimoth Plantation, tells the NYT, “The English-written record does not mention an invitation, and Wampanoag oral tradition does not seem to reach back to this event…”