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Thanksgiving Springs from Beloved Traditions, Myths


On Thursday, Americans will mark our annual Thanksgiving holiday. It often revolves around a lavish dinner for family and friends that begins with a solemn prayer of thanks for our blessings. The Thanksgiving tradition is modeled after the harvest-home feasts of many cultures -- especially what's been called the First Thanksgiving in colonial Massachusetts.

It's an annual event that often begins with a prayer, captured in the old hymn, "We Gather Together to Ask the Lord's Blessing."

The Thanksgiving story begins on a cold, late-fall day in 1621, when about 50 English settlers called Pilgrims, who had barely survived their first winter in the New World while another 50 perished, shared a harvest-time feast with neighboring Wampanoag Indians. This pleasant tale, embellished over generations, brings extra warm feelings to a beloved family holiday, on which Americans like to sing about gatherings in lyrics like these:

"Over the river and through the woods

"To grandmother's house we go.

"The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

Through the white and drifted snow . . . ."

But according to curators at Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum in the same settlement where the Pilgrims and Indians marked that harvest more than 300 years ago, the Thanksgiving story is laced with myth and exaggeration. For one thing, the event likely took place not in November, but in October, closer to the corn harvest.

Kathleen Curtin, a food historian at Plimoth Plantation, says about 90 native men (there's no record of Wampanoag women coming along) conferred and ate with the Pilgrims for a full three days.

And it's unlikely anyone called it Thanksgiving. "For these Puritans who came over, Thanksgiving had a particular and special meaning," Ms. Curtin says. "And it was held after there had been a very fortuitous [fortunate] event. Not common, everyday events. So a successful harvest is more in that range of something you expect, you hope for from God. You hold a Thanksgiving when something amazing has happened. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in England -- that's an occasion for a Thanksgiving."

The Pilgrims were religious separatists, an offshoot of a strict sect called the Puritans, who are pictured as a starchy, pious lot not likely to throw a party. That's not necessarily true, says Ms. Curtin. "They were very religious people at a very religious time. However, they also came out of merry, old England. And beer- and wine-drinking and feasting and celebrating were also part of their lives. They weren't completely without joy and happiness, that's for sure."

The skimpy records of the 1621 conclave mention fowl. But Kathleen Curtin says these were likely geese and ducks, certainly not plump, domesticated turkeys like American families stuff and roast today. And you can forget the First Thanksgiving illustrations of long tables, piled high with breads and pumpkin pies and cranberry sauce. "The English knew of cranberries," Ms. Curtin acknowledges. "The Wampanoag ate them. They didn't have enough sugar, though, to turn them into cranberry sauce. Pumpkins were around, but it's very unlikely they had pumpkin pie, lacking the wheat flour and the ovens needed to make those pies."

At Plimoth Plantation, Linda Coombs is the associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program. She, too, discounts some of the tall tales from that harvest time in 1621. She says the Wampanoags went off and shot five deer as their contribution to the festivities. But contrary to legend, they brought no popcorn, a variety of corn that did not then exist in Massachusetts. Nor did they wear resplendent feathered headdresses like those of Plains Indians. Wampanoag attire was spare and practical.

And Ms. Coombs lances an even bigger Thanksgiving fantasy: "The whole myth is that the Indians welcomed the English into their land, and they ate turkey and lived happily ever after. And that this was the first Thanksgiving, the first of many, many up until now. The whole underlying concept there is that native people just willingly and gladly accepted colonization. That was not the case. It was not the case then, and is not the case now."

The alliance between Pilgrims and Wampanoags lasted just 50 years before broken treaties led to fighting and bloodshed.

There's one more Thanksgiving image that's way out of step with reality. Perhaps you've seen sketches of men in Pilgrim costumes -- fine coats, shiny shoes, and steeple hats with big buckles above their wide brims. In the 17th century, only the wealthy dressed so formally. The struggling Pilgrims wore beaver hats and deerskin coats. After the year they had had, they were likely thankful to have those clothes, and to be alive.