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The Real History of the First Thanksgiving and Seven More Things You Probably Didn’t Learn in School

Just what is so special about this holiday? Let’s take a closer look at the legend behind it, the truth of it now, and some things you might not know. Pro-tip: learn them quick - these may be safer topics for the dinner table than current events and modern politics.

Nov 21, 2018
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The Real History of the First Thanksgiving and Seven More Things You Probably Didn’t Learn in School

The joy. The merriment. The travel. The food. The family. The traditions. You’ve seen the movies and heard the stories. But do you know the history?

Let’s take a closer look at the history behind the holiday and why, and how, Americans celebrate it.

How it started

Legend has it that it was a shared meal between Native Americans and pious Pilgrims, complete with turkeys, pumpkin pie, and peace on earth. But that’s only legend. As with most traditions, the true history of Thanksgiving is a lot more complicated.

Here’s how the (mostly historical) story goes:

In 1620, a small ship from England called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England carrying 102 people, some of them seeking a new home where they could freely practice their religion. Their first winter, in what they named the Plymouth Plantation, was tough. Many of the settlers died from exposure and disease, and only half of the original population of the Mayflower survived. In the early spring, those that had survived were aided by local indigenous North Americans who taught the settlers how to cultivate corn, make syrup, catch fish, and avoid poisonous plants. That autumn, the Plymouth colonists and members of the local tribes, including the Pokanoket Wampanoag, shared a harvest feast to give thanks for their survival and for the help the Native Americans offered.

This story, based on scattered writings from settlers like Edward Winslow and William Bradford, has been embellished, simplified, politicized, and mythologized throughout the years, and remains a hotly debated topic for historians and politicians alike. Its association with the fraught, and frankly, violent history of European oppression of indigenous people makes it a problematic holiday for some, and the day is observed as a National Day of Mourning by many Native Americans. This observance, established in 1970, memorializes the genocide - committed not far from the site of the first Plymouth Thanksgiving - of hundreds of Pequot Indians in 1637, as well as the centuries of abuse suffered by the indigenous people of North America after the arrival of Europeans.

Even the evolution of the Thanksgiving holiday is contentious. For example, most historians agree that the Plymouth Thanksgiving was certainly not celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, nor was turkey a significant part of the meal. And though George Washington and other early presidents periodically proclaimed national days of Thanksgiving to commemorate various milestones in American political establishment, these proclamations were seen by some as infringements on states’ rights, or, as Thomas Jefferson argued, a violation of the concept of separation of Church and State.

It wasn’t until the Civil War – more than 200 years after the Mayflower landed - that Thanksgiving became a national holiday. The holiday was established by President Abraham Lincoln, after a lengthy campaign by writer, abolitionist, and women’s education advocate, Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale’s efforts to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday had already spread to more than 30 states by 1854, and in September of 1863, Lincoln established the holiday by an official proclamation. Still, it wasn’t until the next century – in 1941 – that Congress passed a resolution fixing Thanksgiving permanently onto the fourth Thursday of November.

If some of the information above was new to you, don’t feel bad. There’s a lot about the history of Thanksgiving that gets left out of textbooks. Here are seven more facts about Thanksgiving that you might not know. Pro-tip: learn them quick - these may be safer topics for the dinner table than current events and modern politics.

Seven More Things You Didn't Know About Thanksgiving

1. The First Thanksgiving was not in Massachusetts

And there wasn’t even just one ‘First Thanksgiving.’ Depending on which historical evidence you want to count, the first Thanksgiving in the New World was celebrated in either St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 between Spanish colonists and local Native Americans or in Berkeley, Virginia by three dozen English settlers who landed nearby on December 4, 1619.

2. Turkey was not the main event

There are (relatively) detailed accounts of the food served (or at least available) during the first feast in Plymouth, and while turkey is mentioned, it is not the main feature. Both Winslow and Bradford mention venison, while Bradford’s account includes fish, waterfowl, meal (grain), and Indian corn. Another account, a letter written by William Hilton, includes fruit, nuts, roots, herbs, flowers, berries, various birds (including turkeys), waterfowl, fish, beavers and otters, grain, and Indian corn.

And if you think pumpkin pie must be traditional, think again. With only a ‘peck of meal a week’ per person in the Plymouth colony and not a hint of butter, pastries and other baked goods were likely in short supply.

3. Pumpkin Pie is served because of Abolition

Even if pumpkin pie wasn’t on the menu, it’s likely that the orange squash and other related fruits were served during the Plymouth feast. Pumpkins and other squash have been a part of North American cuisine for at least 10,000 years.

But that’s not why they feature in modern Thanksgiving menus. By the 19th century, pumpkin pie and other pumpkin dishes had become a New England specialty, and this Northern association made the pumpkin a popular symbol of “northern virtue” with abolitionists. Historian Cindy Ott notes that “the women who [helped create] Thanksgiving as a holiday were strong abolitionists” and that their influence helped the pumpkin to become a feature and symbol of American Thanksgiving.

4. The first TV Dinner was Thanksgiving leftovers

In 1953, the Swanson company made a gross error in estimating the amount of turkeys American would consume. The company was left with over 260 tons of frozen turkeys.

Company salesman Gerry Thomas recruited an assembly line to fill over 5,000 aluminum trays with mini-Thanksgiving feasts complete with turkey, cornbread dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes.

A star was born.

5. Jingle Bells was originally a Thanksgiving song

In 1857, James Pierpont composed the song for children celebrating Thanksgiving at his Sunday school. It was originally titled ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’ and was written in either Massachusetts or Georgia. The song was so popular, they repeated it at Christmas. Every. Year. Since. Then.

Bonus fun fact: Jingle Bells was the first song heard from space – astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford used a harmonica and bells to create their rendition, which was sent to earth with a Christmas message.

6. Black Friday is the busiest day of the year. For plumbers.

While the rest of the country takes a collective break, your local plumber is hard at work. During the four-day Thanksgiving break, business increases up to 50 percent for plumbers.

The number one call? Clogged kitchen sink drains and garbage disposals. Problem #2? Clogged sewer lines.

7. The night before Thanksgiving is a great night for bars

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving produces the most bar sales in the US—more than New Year’s Eve, the Superbowl, or even St. Patrick’s Day. This regular uptick in bar patronage is now referred to as ‘Blackout Wednesday,’ and in 2016 was attributed to a 23 percent jump in sales compared to the previous Wednesday.

Why? Nearly all Americans have the following holiday off and most are with family members. And it should come as no surprise that Blackout Wednesday is especially prolific in places where young people, many home for the first time since the beginning of the school year, are numerous. This tracks with statistics about the drinks served during this libationary night. According to figures cited by Forbes, bar sales show a 270 percent increase in beer sales and an 113.5 percent increase in liquor and cocktail sales on Thanksgiving Eve, while wine sales hardly changed – with the per-glass sales total actually decreasing by 27 percent!