Deconstructing Four Classic Thanksgiving Myths

The Pilgrims invented Thanksgiving, right? Well…not really. This is just one of the more common Thanksgiving myths that we’ll examine in this article.

Thanksgiving myths are common and persistent in American culture, possibly because they’ve been institutionalized in our schools and passed down from one generation to another. Just because they’re the official stories we’re told, does not make them true.

In fact, Thanksgiving is an invented tradition that owes more to Abe Lincoln for making it a formal holiday, than to the Pilgrims. Who, by the way, weren’t even introduced as a part of the holiday until the late 19th century! Care to learn more Thanksgiving facts? Read on.

Myth 1: The First Thanksgiving Occurred at the Plymouth Colony.

Whether this Thanksgiving myth is true depends what you consider a Thanksgiving. The first celebration that was called such and occurred in what would become part of the U.S. took place in San Elizario, Texas in 1598, when conquistador Juan De Onate arrived at the Rio Grande after a long, brutal trek.

Closer to Plymouth, the Berkeley Plantation on the James River claims a Thanksgiving Day in 1619, two years before the Pilgrims and their official first Thanksgiving in 1621. If you want to be strict about it, Plymouth Colony’s was actually at least the third Thanksgiving. But who’s counting?

Myth 2: Thanksgiving Originated as a Religious Holiday.

Nope, this one’s definitely a Thanksgiving myth. Most thanksgivings are indeed religious, but not the American one. It never has been. It’s mostly a fall harvest festival. The Pilgrims would never have invited the Native Americans (who they considered heathens) to a religious observance.

Myth 3: The Turkey-and-Cranberry-Sauce Tradition Started with the Pilgrims.

Not likely. While the early English settlers were quite familiar with turkey, they hadn’t been exposed to cranberries by that point. In addition, they had no corn, potatoes, yams, or most of the other foods we associate with Thanksgiving. What they did have was deer, and we know they ate that. Maybe bear, too.

So it’s a Thanksgiving myth to think that our traditional meal of turkey and dressing with cranberry sauce on the side is at all representative of the settlers’ Thanksgiving feast. It’s traditional because it’s what the Victorians, who first widely celebrated Thanksgiving, enjoyed on their holiday.

Myth 4: We’ve Celebrated Thanksgiving Every Year Since the First One.

Not so. Once again, you have to decide which one was first (1598, 1619, or 1621), and in any case not every year has seen a Thanksgiving as such. Even if you accept the official date (1621), the Pilgrims didn’t have another Thanksgiving until 1623, when they celebrated the end of a drought.

Thanksgiving wasn’t even a widespread American holiday outside of New England, until President Lincoln proclaimed it such in 1863 — and even then, it wasn’t really official until 1939. But hey, don’t let these Thanksgiving myths affect your enjoyment of the day: dig in, nap if off, and go watch some football!