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6 Thanksgiving Misconceptions: From Turkeys to Partisanship

by Michael Higham, published

Many of us on the last Thursday of November feast with our family and friends. Traditionally, there's turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and several vegetables on the table as we remember the things we're thankful for. However, history may have a curious way of leading into what we accept today. Here are 6 Thanksgiving misconceptions made clear:

1. Thanksgiving wasn't a national holiday until President Abraham Lincoln said so

Despite being proclaimed by of Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1637, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a National holiday in 1863. Journalist and author Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned on making it a national holiday and ultimately received presidential support. From President Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation:

"I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

2. Partisanship played a role in Thanksgiving's Date

In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared the fourth Thursday of November the official date, when there was five Thursdays in the month that year. This was said to expand the holiday shopping season in hopes of providing an economic boost. The Republican party opposed this, and November 30 was coined the "Republican Thanksgiving" that year.

In 1940-41, the official date was moved to the third Thursday of November but with the same partisan divide. In 1942, the official date was moved again to the last Thursday of the month.

3. Thanksgiving has multiple roots

Thanksgiving has become a fusion of many reasons to celebrate, whether it be religious, social, or political. Common in American history, the celebration is often attributed to the 1621 feast between pilgrims at Plymouth and the Wampanoag tribe.

There are religious accounts of the celebration as a Christian tradition to recognize and worship for the season's harvest, originated by the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay. Several church services are done on Thanksgiving.

Several accounts of Thanksgiving feasts have been recorded throughout the 16th and 17th century, including Spanish colonists' celebrations when coming to American soil.

4. Turkey was not the featured dish on the first Thanksgiving Day

Americans consume about 535 million pounds of turkey every year on Thanksgiving, but was turkey the original star of the show? Colonists were familiar with turkey but venison, deer, lobster, clams, and fish were on the table during the 1621 feast. By the mid 19th century, turkey had become the main dish of Thanksgiving.

5. Was Thanksgiving only celebrated for one day a year?

It is said that the first American Thanksgiving in 1621 was a three-day feast. Colonists in New England regularly celebrated several "Thanksgivings" for other recognitions of fortune.

6. Thanksgiving Isn't Just American

Thanksgiving is also a Canadian tradition, which is said to have originated in 1528. It is celebrated in mid-October, and was proclaimed by the Canadian parliament in 1957:

A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.

History and the way we celebrate it is like a game of 'telephone' -- as the message is passed from one to another, it changes over time. If there are any nuances to the story of Thanksgiving's origins, share with us in the comments!

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