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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 11/23/2011

5 myths about Thanksgiving

What Americans think they know about the history of Thanksgiving doesn’t always square with the truth. Here are some common myths:

1) In 1621, Pilgrims held a feast in Plymouth Colony to celebrate their first harvest. They invited Wampanoag Indians, and everyone enjoyed turkey and pumpkin pie.

That could have happened, but nobody knows for sure. Historians, including those at Plimoth Plantation, a living museum in Plymouth, Mass., say that they do know there was a feast that year shared by the colonists and Wampanoag Indians. Squanto, who had learned English, served as translator.

The one historical account of the actual dinner says venison was served and some sort of fowl, but it doesn't specifically say turkey, though colonists were accustomed to eating it, and another account of the first harvest mentioned wild turkey.

Pumpkin was available, but it is not likely the colonists whipped up a pie. Sweet potatoes were unknown to the colonists, and cranberries may have been served but not as a sauce or relish.

2) The Pilgrims dressed in black and white and wore buckles on the ir shoes.

No, they didn’t. There were no buckles on their shoes. The women dressed in various colors, including red, green blue and violet, and men wore a variety of colors too.

3) Americans have always eaten turkey at their Thanksgiving feasts because that is what was served at the first Thanksgiving.

We have 19th century author and magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale to thank for the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today..

Hale had read about the 1621 feast and decided to use it as a model for an annual holiday. She published in the popular Godey's Lady's Book recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and started traditions that had nothing to do with the colonists. She successfully lobbied President Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863 agreed to declare Thanksgiving an annual holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

4) After the first Thanksgiving in 1621, Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving every year since.

Historians know there was another feast in the colony in 1623 -- but it was held earlier in the year. Different colonies celebrated their own days of thanksgiving during the year.

As for the 1621 feast being the first Thanksgiving, nobody at the time thought of it as the start of a new tradition, and there had been similar gatherings elsewhere earlier.

In 1789, Washington made Thursday, Nov. 26, a Thanksgiving holiday, but only for that year. While there were Thanksgiving observances in America both before and after Washington’s proclamation, this represents the first to be so designated by the new national government.

In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation making the fourth Tuesday of November as a national holiday. Jump to 1939. That’s when president Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to move the annual Thanksgiving holiday to the third Thursday of November. Why? To help the economy by making the Christmas shopping season a little bit longer. There was so much opposition to the move that two years later he changed it to the fourth Thursday in November.

5) The presidential pardon of a turkey started with Abraham Lincoln when his son begged his dad to save the animal.

It depends on how you define “longstanding.” The tradition goes back to 1989, when president George H.W. Bush officially pardoned the first one. And according to a perhaps apocryphal story, in 1863, Lincoln's 10-year-old son, Tad, supposedly became fond of a turkey given to the family for a holiday feast. Tad named the turkey Jack and begged his father to save the animal. Lincoln did. The only problem with that as a Thanksgiving story is that Tad's plea was to save the Christmas turkey!

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled violet.

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By  |  04:00 AM ET, 11/23/2011

 
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