Most of What You Know about Thanksgiving is Wrong!

My blog posts are usually about serious matters. I write about nonprofit management issues, fundraising techniques, and government policies impacting the nonprofit sector among other topics. This time around, I thought we could step back and have a little fun this Thanksgiving season.

If you’re like me, there’s a lot about Thanksgiving that you think you know that is simply wrong. So, I’m going to set the record straight so you can regale your family and friends with the facts:

Myth 1: The Pilgrims Held the First Thanksgiving in 1621

While the Pilgrims did hold a Thanksgiving in 1621, it was definitely not the first such celebration on what would eventually become U.S. soil. Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Virginia claims to be the home of the first official Thanksgiving which was held in 1619. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy even recognized the Plantation’s claim.

However, there are several even older claims to the first Thanksgiving: In 1610, colonists in Jamestown, Virginia celebrated a Thanksgiving when a ship arrived full of food. In 1607, English colonists and Abnaki Indians observed a Thanksgiving at Maine’s Kennebec River. In 1598, San Elizario, a small community near present-day El Paso, Texas, held a Thanksgiving celebration. In 1565, the Spanish held a day of Thanksgiving in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. In 1564, a Thanksgiving was held by French Huguenot colonists in present-day Jacksonville, Florida. In 1541, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his troops celebrated a Thanksgiving in what is now the Texas panhandle.

Myth 2: Thanksgiving has Always Been in November

While Thanksgiving is celebrated in the U.S. on the fourth Thursday of November, this has not always been the case. In fact, Thanksgiving hasn’t even been annually celebrated. While the Pilgrims marked Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621 — there’s no record of the month — they did not do so again until 1623 and then it was a summer event.

The first Berkeley Plantation Thanksgiving was held on December 4. The San Elizario Thanksgiving wasn’t even held in the autumn or early winter; it was celebrated on April 30. The Saint Augustine Thanksgiving was held on September 8.

As for our modern Thanksgiving celebrations, the holiday was marked on different dates by the states until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln declared the final Thursday of November to be a national day of Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until 1941 that the date was permanently established as the fourth Thursday of November.

Myth 3: Thanksgiving was a Harvest Celebration

Well, it depends on which Thanksgiving you’re talking about. While the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving was a celebration of the harvest, the Berkeley Plantation Thanksgiving marked the anniversary of the establishment of the colony. The Jamestown Thanksgiving marked the arrival of a ship full of food desperately needed by the starving colonists. The original San Elizario Thanksgiving celebrated the arrival of Spanish explorer Juan de Onate and his followers on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Myth 4: Thanksgiving was Always Celebrated with a Feast

Nope. William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony, called for Thanksgiving to be celebrated in 1623 with a fast.

Myth 5: Thanksgiving was Historically a Religious Holiday

If the Pilgrim Thanksgiving was a religious event, it’s very doubtful that the Pilgrims would have invited the Native Americans. Besides, Pilgrims tended to mark religious events with somber observance rather than festivities. While the Pilgrim Thanksgiving was likely not a religious event, the San Elizario Thanksgiving did include a Catholic mass. For the Thanksgiving feast, the Spaniards were later joined by Native Americans.

Myth 6: Thanksgiving was Always About Family

In all of the earliest Thanksgivings, the occasion was a communal rather than family event. Think of it more as a block party rather than family dinner. By the way, the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving was an event lasting almost a week. It was a multi-cultural, communal affair with both Native Americans and Pilgrims attending.

Myth 7: Turkey was Served at the First Thanksgiving

We don’t really know what foods were served at the earliest Thanksgivings. As for the Pilgrim Thanksgiving, we do know that fowl and deer were served, but we don’t know any more than that. The Norman Rockwell image of Thanksgiving with the big turkey and cranberry sauce is really an invention of the Victorian era when Thanksgiving was first made a national holiday.

Now that we’ve debunked seven Thanksgiving myths, let’s take a look at some holiday trivia courtesy of a 2010 article by Brian Handwerk of National Geographic News:

  • 242 million turkeys were raised in the U.S. for slaughter.
  • The turkey industry is worth nearly $4 billion annually.
  • About 46 million turkeys ended up on U.S. dinner tables last Thanksgiving, that’s about 736 million pounds of turkey meat
  • Minnesota is the top turkey-producing state, followed by North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, and Virginia.
  • These six states produce two of every three U.S.-raised birds.
  • U.S. farmers produced about 735 million pounds of cranberries. The top producers are Wisconsin and Massachusetts.
  • The U.S. grows about 1.9 billion pounds of sweet potatoes, with big producing states being North Carolina, California, and Louisiana.
  • Pumpkins are also a big crop with about 931 million pounds produced. Illinois, California, and Ohio grow the most U.S. pumpkins.
  • Harry S. Truman was the first U.S. President to “pardon” a turkey.

So, now that you’ve read a lot about Thanksgiving and the traditional foods of the holiday, would you like to add a taste of Wampanoag Indian or Pilgrim cuisine to your dinner table? If so, you’ll want to check-out the recipes offered at the Plimoth Plantation website 

Finally, I hope that you and yours have (or had) a joyous Thanksgiving. At this holiday time, I’m thankful for a great many things. One of the things I’m thankful for is having you as a reader. I very much appreciate your interest in my blog. Thank you for taking the time to visit. And, thank you for everything you do to make the world a better place.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

21 Responses to “Most of What You Know about Thanksgiving is Wrong!”

  1. Michael, I was somewhat disappointed that Texas was not listed among the top producers of turkeys. We’ve produced Rick Perry, George W. Bush, LBJ, Phil Gramm, Ron Paul, Preston Smith, Claytie Williams, Bill Clements, Dolph Briscoe – oh, Good Gosh, just get out a Dallas phone book. Ha!

    • Roger, my friend, thank you for reminding us that turkeys come in all shapes, sizes, and political parties. Sadly, Texas does not have a monopoly on the political variety. By the way, for my readers who may not know Roger, he’s a big-hearted Texan with a first-rate sense of humor. Happy Thanksgiving, Roger.

  2. Michael, I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s obvious that Myth #4 is just a typo [INSERT SMILEY FACE HERE].

    Thank you for your always interesting and thoughtful insights, and all best wishes to you and yours for a wonderful Thanksgiving.

    • Jeff, thank you for your good-humored comment and good wishes. I hope you and yours also have a fantastic Thanksgiving. By the way, Gov. Bradford continued to hold office for many more years after launching the Thanksgiving FAST. Somehow, I don’t think the outcome would be the same today. 🙂

  3. Really interesting stuff! I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving yourself … but no fasting per William Bradford … only feasting!

    • Steve, thanks for the comment and good wishes. I hope that you and yours have a terrific Thanksgiving, too. As for me, I have a Thanksgiving lunch AND a Thanksgiving dinner to attend. Careful pacing will be the order of the day as it will be the complete opposite of fasting. 🙂

  4. Interesting holiday stuff! Here’s a little bit on the turkey, from our friend Ben Franklin who wrote while in France to his daughter Sally in January of 1784, explaining his disappointment that the eagle had been chosen as the symbol of our country:

    “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

    “With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…

    “I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Claire, thank you for sharing Ben Franklin’s thoughts on the Bald Eagle v. the Turkey. Though I’ve never eaten an eagle, I suspect it is the turkey that makes better eating. Yet another positive attribute of this noble bird. 🙂

  5. Thank you for another interesting post Michael! Hope you had a fabulous feast!

    • Theresa, thank you for taking the time to write in. My Thanksgiving was terrific. I attended TWO holiday feasts. Good pacing was soooo important in order to survive the day. All went well. I hope you and yours had a great Thanksgiving, too.

  6. Michael, no mention of pumpkin pie? Here is trivia from this year. The Costco in Visalia, CA (my town with a population of 125,000) sold more pumpkin pies over Thanksgiving than any other Costco (11,000!).

  7. “Harry S. Truman was the first U.S. President to “pardon” a turkey.”

    Not exactly true, Michael. Do you know why? Clue: It is a trick question.

    Really enjoy the article.


    • Rick, thank you for commenting and for the riddle. I’ll give you a couple of answers to your question:

      First, while there have been many references to President Truman being the first US President to pardon a turkey, there’s no evidence that he ever actually did, according to The Truman Library. The tradition of the turkey “pardon” became more formalized and permanent with President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

      Second, while the turkey (actually two) are pardoned and live out their lives on a farm or elsewhere, the fact is that their days are numbered. Turkeys bred for eating have many health problems and, therefore, have short life expectancies even when not put to slaughter. Most of the pardoned turkeys live for less than a year following the pardon.

      Third, my vegetarian friends tell me that the turkey cannot be “pardoned” because it has committed no offense other than simply being a turkey.

      Ok, it’s your turn. What’s the answer you were going for?

      Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. I was very disappointed in this article, I thought it was going to touch on what this country has made Thanksgiving to be and what we teach our children about ”the first thanksgiving” and why it shouldn’t actually be a day to celebrate natives and settlers. ”a serious topic” indeed.

    • Whatisdog, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m sorry you were disappointed in my post. The fact is, there are a number of myths about Thanksgiving. I chose to address many of those myths, though certainly not all. The European and Native American historical relationship is a complicated, often ugly, one. Regarding the quality of that relationship and the Native American participation in Thanksgiving, it largely depends on which “first” Thanksgiving one refers to. My intention with this post was to take a somewhat lite, fun look at the holiday. However, that does not mean I disregard how Native Americans were treated by European settlers.


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