“The reason that we have so many myths associated with Thanksgiving is that it is an invented tradition. It doesn’t originate in any one event. It is based on the New England puritan Thanksgiving, which is a religious Thanksgiving, and the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England and maybe other ideas like commemorating the pilgrims. All of these have been gathered together and transformed into something different from the original parts.” – James W. Baker, Senior Historian at Plymoth Plantation
Myth: The first Thanksgiving was in 1621 and the pilgrims celebrated it every year thereafter.
Fact: The first feast wasn’t repeated, so it wasn’t the beginning of a tradition. In fact, the colonists didn’t even call the day Thanksgiving. To them, a thanksgiving was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle. On such a religious day, the types of recreational activities that the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians participated in during the 1621 harvest feast–dancing, singing secular songs, playing games–wouldn’t have been allowed. The feast was a secular celebration, so it never would have been considered a thanksgiving in the pilgrims minds.
Myth: The original Thanksgiving feast took place on the fourth Thursday of November.
Fact: The original feast in 1621 occurred sometime between September 21 and November 11. Unlike our modern holiday, it was three days long. The event was based on English harvest festivals, which traditionally occurred around the 29th of September. After that first harvest was completed by the Plymouth colonists, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer, shared by all the colonists and neighboring Indians. In 1623 a day of fasting and prayer during a period of drought was changed to one of thanksgiving because the rain came during the prayers. Gradually the custom prevailed in New England of annually celebrating thanksgiving after the harvest.
During the American Revolution a yearly day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. In 1817 New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom, and by the middle of the 19th century many other states had done the same. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, which he may have correlated it with the November 21, 1621, anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod. Since then, each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941).
Myth: The pilgrims wore only black and white clothing. They had buckles on their hats, garments, and shoes.
Fact: Buckles did not come into fashion until later in the seventeenth century and black and white were commonly worn only on Sunday and formal occasions. Women typically dressed in red, earthy green, brown, blue, violet, and gray, while men wore clothing in white, beige, black, earthy green, and brown.
Myth: The pilgrims brought furniture with them on the Mayflower.
Fact: The only furniture that the pilgrims brought on the Mayflower was chests and boxes. They constructed wooden furniture once they settled in Plymouth.
Myth: The Mayflower was headed for Virginia, but due to a navigational mistake it ended up in Cape Cod Massachusetts.
Fact: The Pilgrims were in fact planning to settle in Virginia, but not the modern-day state of Virginia. They were part of the Virginia Company, which had the rights to most of the eastern seaboard of the U.S. The pilgrims had intended to go to the Hudson River region in New York State, which would have been considered “Northern Virginia,” but they landed in Cape Cod instead. Treacherous seas prevented them from venturing further south.
Publishers Note: This feature compliments of The History Channel.