10 myths about Thanksgiving

Here's a fun piece by Rick Shenkman, editor of the History News Network, debunking some cherished myths about Thanksgiving.

Some examples:

Texans claim the first Thanksgiving in America actually took place in little San Elizario, a community near El Paso, in 1598 -- twenty-three years before the Pilgrims' festival. For several years they have staged a reenactment of the event that culminated in the Thanksgiving celebration: the arrival of Spanish explorer Juan de Onate on the banks of the Rio Grande. De Onate is said to have held a big Thanksgiving festival after leading hundreds of settlers on a grueling 350-mile long trek across the Mexican desert.


If by Thanksgiving, you have in mind the Pilgrim festival, forget about it being a family holiday. Put away your Norman Rockwell paintings. Turn off Bing Crosby. Thanksgiving was a multicultural community event. If it had been about family, the Pilgrims never would have invited the Indians to join them.


What did the Pilgrims eat at their Thanksgiving festival? They didn't have corn on the cob, apples, pears, potatoes or even cranberries. No one knows if they had turkey, although they were used to eating turkey. The only food we know they had for sure was deer. 11(And they didn't eat with a fork; they didn't have forks back then.)

So how did we get the idea that you have turkey and cranberry and such on Thanksgiving? It was because the Victorians prepared Thanksgiving that way. And they're the ones who made Thanksgiving a national holiday, beginning in 1863, when Abe Lincoln issued his presidential Thanksgiving proclamations...two of them: one to celebrate Thanksgiving in August, a second one in November.


Puritans Hated Sex

Actually, they welcomed sex as a God-given responsibility. When one member of the First Church of Boston refused to have conjugal relations with his wife two years running, he was expelled. Cotton Mather, the celebrated Puritan minister, condemned a married couple who had abstained from sex in order to achieve a higher spirituality. They were the victims, he wrote, of a"blind zeal."

I'm glad for that. Nice to know early Americans had their priorities straight.

The value of myth debunking -- although this is more tongue in cheek than serious scholarship -- is that it usually illuminates people and events, placing them in an entirely new light and giving the student of history a dramatically new perspective. When you strip away the myths surrounding most historical figures, I find that it hardly diminishes them. Their real exploits assume a new importance and you gain an appreciation for both their failings and achievements.

By the way -- Like the Pilgrims, I'm not eating turkey today. Thankfully, I won't be eating venison either. I'm stuck with being forced to consume a 7 lb prime rib roast.

Pity me.