Ever Wondered Why We Eat Turkey and Pumpkin Pie on Thanksgiving?

Gunston Middle School teacher Corey Meyers holds a Thanksgiving turkey.
Gunston Middle School teacher Corey Meyers holds a Thanksgiving turkey. (2006 Photo By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
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Monday, November 24, 2008

You may have heard this popular story about the first Thanksgiving holiday:

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

It turns out that only some of that is true, according to historians at Plimoth Plantation, a living museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Historians now know that there was such a feast that year with Indians (who communicated with the colonists through Squanto, an Indian who had learned English).

But the menu didn't look like today's typical Thanksgiving meal.

Deer and fowl were served, but nobody knows if turkey was included. Pumpkin was available, but it is unlikely the colonists turned it into a pie. Sweet potatoes were not known to the colonists, and cranberries may have been served but not as a sauce or relish.

As for the feast being the first Thanksgiving, nobody at the time thought of it as the start of a new tradition. There was another feast in the colony in 1623 -- but it was held in the summer. In later years, different colonies celebrated their own days of thanksgiving during the year, but these holidays were quiet, and people often fasted (meaning they didn't eat).

Americans started eating turkey for Thanksgiving in the mid-1800s. A popular magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale read about the 1621 feast and decided to use it as a model for an annual holiday.

She published recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and started traditions that had nothing to do with the colonists. That's when Americans starting eating those foods on Thanksgiving!

The first time Thanksgiving was celebrated nationally was in 1789, when President George Washington declared Thursday, Nov. 26, a holiday.

Then in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared that the fourth Thursday of November would be celebrated as Thanksgiving.

Every year the president is given a turkey to eat for the holiday, and since 1989, he has "pardoned" the bird -- allowing it to live rather than eat it.

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