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5 Thanksgiving Myths Debunked — Pilgrims Didn’t Wear Buckles? (And More)

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Thanksgiving, which we’ve been celebrating in America for centuries now, is a time of family, food and, especially, tradition. Even so, many of the stories we take as gospel about this wonderful holiday—wonderful if you’re not endlessly bickering with your relatives, that is—aren’t true at all. Myth, legend and wishful thinking play into a lot of the misconceptions surrounding Turkey Day.

Like most things, Thanksgiving has evolved over the years and borrowed from a variety of sources in order to create the current celebration we know and love. Here are five stories about Thanksgiving that may have you thinking differently about America’s national meal:

Turkey Wasn’t the Original Main Course

Turkey might not have even been served at the first Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving celebration. Deer, lobster and a ton a shrimp were on the tables, but not necessarily turkey. While the Wampanoag people and the early settlers hunted fowl, they could have just as easily bagged ducks and geese instead of the “gobble gobble” bird for the three-day feast. Corn, crab, fish and lots of veggies, which were in season, along with venison probably made up the majority of the food enjoyed by the Native Americans and the battered newcomers on those festive autumn days so long ago.

Cranberry Sauce and Sweet Potatoes Were Off the Menu

When those legendary Mayflower voyagers arrived in the New World, they didn’t bring stores of (expensive) sugar with them, which meant cranberry sauce was a later addition to the traditional Thanksgiving feast. Fresh cranberries, however, were likely consumed in abundance. Sweet potatoes weren’t available either, so that culinary delight had to be added at some later date as well. Pumpkins were on the menu, but not in pie form. Carrots, peas and different kinds of squashes featured heavily, but not so for sweet-potato dishes and cranberry sauce.

Pilgrims Dressed in a Variety of Colors Without Buckles Everywhere

Buckles on the hat, buckles on the shoes, and big buckles on the belt are standard Thanksgiving Day apparel motifs. As much as we love those buckles, it seems the Pilgrims didn’t deck themselves out with buckles at all, since buckles weren’t in style at the time. Moreover, black and white weren’t the only colors available to the pioneering fashion set. Women typically wore blue, brown, gray, green, red and violet. The men also had several options other than black and white, which was reserved for formal attire, when it came to the wardrobe department.

Thanksgiving Day Was Celebrated Before Plymouth—And Not Just by the Pilgrims

Thanksgiving Day, as celebrated by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, was a combination of various European harvest festivals and, more importantly, ancient harvest festivals celebrated by the Native Americans. American Indians living in the Northeast had long been farmers, and autumn, of course, is the time of year when farmers reap the bounty of the harvest.

The dancing, food and games that Pilgrims shared with the Wampanoag Indians on “Thanksgiving” weren’t in line with the somber and religious days of “thanks” in the traditional Pilgrim sense of the term. The harvest festivities were more akin to the celebrations of the Wampanoag, a people living in North America long before the Dutch, English, or Spanish ever set foot on American soil.

Pilgrims ≠ Puritans

Pilgrims and Puritans are not the same. While the Mayflower was full of people who wanted to escape religious persecution back home and practice a different kind of religion, those Pilgrims were much more tolerant and far less strict than the Puritans. The Puritans came to the New World well after the Mayflower had already dropped anchor. The Pilgrims wanted to break away from the Church of England entirely, while the Puritans wanted to reform, or purify, it. Puritans were also the folks behind much of the witch burning that went on in the 17th century, something the Pilgrims would never do.

Photo by Aaron Savage
Photo by Aaron Savage
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