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5 Things Your Students Think They Know About Thanksgiving

Stephen Eldridge, TeachHUB

Every student learns the story of Thanksgiving, and almost every student learns it wrong. The usual tale goes something like this: Back in 1621, the buckle-hatted colonists known as the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe that inhabited New England came together to have the first Thanksgiving. They began an annual tradition of sitting down to eat Turkey and pie while giving thanks to God for another year’s harvest.



That story is a modern-day myth. Here are five things your students think they know about Thanksgiving, and how you can start clueing them in to the truth behind the legend.

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1: The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Held the First Thanksgiving in America

The legend tells us that the colonists and the Native Americans held the first Thanksgiving back in 1621. That’s the whole point of the story, right? The problem is, similar celebrations of thanks had been held several times across the New World, as early as 80 years before.

In 1541, the Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado held a celebration of thanksgiving while on an expedition in the land that would become Texas. Other contenders for the title of first thanksgiving include festivities in Florida in 1565, Texas in 1598, Maine in 1607, and Virginia in both 1610 and 1619.

In fact, the Pilgrims didn’t even call their feast “Thanksgiving”. To them, a day of thanksgiving was a day of fasting.

2: Thanksgiving Has Been Celebrated Traditionally Since 1621

If the Pilgrims didn’t hold the first Thanksgiving, did they at least start the tradition of celebrating it every year?

Nope. There’s no evidence that either the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag repeated their 1621 feast. The story of the feast was popularized in 1841—more than 200 years after the event—by an historian named Alexander Young. Young coined the term “The First Thanksgiving” because the feast reminded him of the Thanksgiving holidays many Americans celebrated at the time.

Perhaps the person most responsible for Thanksgiving as we know it today was the nineteenth century writer Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale encouraged state governors and even President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving an official American celebration. Lincoln made the first Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1863.

3: The Pilgrims Disapproved of Colorful Clothing, Music, and Fun

The Pilgrims didn’t much resemble the dour figures we imagine today. They enjoyed music, dancing, and laughter. Rather than black, pilgrims often wore earth tones, or even bright colors like red and green. They didn’t have tall black hats with buckles—buckles became part of the Pilgrim myth in the nineteenth century because artists thought they looked quaint. Black and white clothing was usually saved for Sundays.

The Pilgrims didn’t even refer to themselves as Pilgrims. The original group of religious separatists called themselves the “Saints;” the other travelers who joined them on the Mayflower were called “Strangers.”

4: Thanksgiving Was a Solemn Religious Holiday

The Pilgrims were deeply religious, but from the beginning Thanksgiving was an inclusive, secular holiday. The proof of this lies in one of the few parts of the Thanksgiving legend that is actually true—the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag celebrated together, despite very different religious beliefs.

The 1621 celebration was a three-day festival. It included not only feasting, but games, athletic competitions, alcohol consumption, and probably even gambling. Few people today give the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag the credit they deserve for knowing how to throw a party.

5: The Foods Served Included Turkey, Cranberries, and Pumpkin Pie

By now your students may be looking dismayed at how little of the Thanksgiving tradition is based in historical fact. Unfortunately, there’s one last shock: At “the first Thanksgiving,” there was no pumpkin pie.

The only thing we can be sure the settlers and the Native Americans ate at the first Thanksgiving is deer. We know that they had no mashed potatoes, no sweet potatoes, and no cranberry sauce. Instead, they probably ate fish, squash, carrots, peas, and nuts. They may have eaten pumpkin, but if so they ate it boiled without pastry or sugar.

To this day, historians can’t be sure if the feast included turkey. We know that the participants hunted “fowl” to serve, but whether that meant turkey, goose, or duck we can’t tell.

Extra Credit

Speaking of turkey, some of your students may have a bonus fact on hand—eating turkey on Thanksgiving makes you sleepy thanks to a chemical called tryptophan. You can give them partial credit on this one. Turkey does contain tryptophan, but scientists don’t think it’s enough to cause drowsiness. There’s a simpler reason some people get tired after Thanksgiving dinner—they had a little too much to eat and drink.

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