While the modern celebration of Thanksgiving is marked by turkey, mashed potatoes, time with family — and more recently — sales events, it is important to note that the first Thanksgiving, (or what we like to think of as the first Thanksgiving) isn’t what we think it is. The celebration we have on the fourth Thursday of November is an American tradition, but our tradition wanders far away from the historic event at several points in the story.
WHAT YOU LEARNED IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL IS WRONG
The Pilgrims didn’t have a feast to show gratitude to the Native Americans for helping them through the harsh winter. The Pilgrims had a harvest festival at which they fired guns and cannons into the air. Hearing this, the Native Americans likely showed up to either see what all the ruckus was about, and to see if they might need to keep their noisy neighbors under control.
That’s right, the Native Americans showed up uninvited, which you would never want people to do at your modern Thanksgiving celebration. Of course, the Pilgrims showed up in the Americas uninvited, so all is fair.
It is still anyone’s guess whether or not the Native Americans were invited to participate once they showed up, or if they just started eating because they could and no one was going to argue with them.
WE DON’T KNOW IF THEY HAD TURKEY
We know for certain they served deer at the first Thanksgiving, and there are references to wild fowl, but there is no historic documentation that specifies the Pilgrims actually ate Turkey on the first Thanksgiving — although it would have been a meat they were accustomed to.
THE PILGRIMS WERE NOT AS BLAND AS WE THINK
The image of Pilgrims as being somewhat less colorful than penguins comes from later depictions. The Pilgrims did wear black and gray, but only on Sunday. The rest of the week, their attire was actually known for being colorful.
Those buckles on their hats and shoes aren’t historically accurate either. Buckles were a symbol of quaintness, so early depictions of the Pilgrims included buckles as an illustration of that. Our modern idea of Pilgrims actually is more about their virtues and values than their physical appearance.
THE THANKSGIVING FEAST WASN’T A SIT-DOWN AFFAIR
One of the aspects of Thanksgiving that makes it hard for some families is that it requires us to have a lengthy sit-down meal with relatives we may not actually get along with. If that’s your struggle, you will be happy to know that the first Thanksgiving didn’t feature a sit-down meal and no one had to get stuck next to Aunt Sally and her paranoid conspiracy theories.
The Pilgrims, having devoted all of their attention to the mere act of surviving, wouldn’t have had enough utensils or plates to pull off such a meal. Food was most likely set on any flat surfaces that were available and guests probably ate with their hands whenever hunger hit them.
So, if you want to be true to tradition and you don’t want to sit down for a long meal with your relatives, just say you’re having a “traditional” Thanksgiving and set up a buffet table with no plates and utensils. This will be more true to the actual tradition, and ensure that your relatives never want to visit you for Thanksgiving again.
IT WASN’T EVEN A THANKSGIVING FEAST
The Pilgrims had thanksgiving feasts, but those were somber occasions. The historic event we base our Thanksgiving tradition off of was actually not a thanksgiving feast, it was a harvest festival that lasted three days. The festival included not just eating, but singing, dancing and games — far from a somber occasion. In fact, it was more of a three day party than a one afternoon feast.
A DEEPER DIVE
About that turkey the president pardons each year… Believe it or not, the first president to formally pardon a Thanksgiving turkey was — drum roll, please — George H.W. Bush. Does this fact leave you scratching your head? Is your memory failing you? Don’t you remember presidents before Bush pardoning turkeys? Yes. You do. But the first president to issue a formal pardon to a turkey was George Bush.
John F. Kennedy chose not to eat a turkey that was presented to him, and Reagan was the first president to actually use the word “pardon” in reference to a turkey. According to the Washington Post, while legend says Abraham Lincoln pardoned a turkey at the behest of his son, that was a Christmas turkey — if it actually happened.