It's time to talk turkey about Thanksgiving traditions

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Thanksgiving is heavily steeped in traditions.

But as sometimes happens with history and facts, myths can get in the way.

James W. Baker, senior historian at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., has some thoughts on why that is with Thanksgiving.

“It is an invented tradition,” he said. “It doesn’t originate in any one event. It is based on the New England Puritan Thanksgiving, which is a religious Thanksgiving, and the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England and maybe other ideas like commemorating the Pilgrims. All of these have been gathered together and transformed into something different from the original parts.”

In honor of this week’s festivities, we take a look at the traditions of the holiday and separate fact from fiction on everything from history to football and more.

The first Thanksgiving

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag tribe members shared a three-day autumn harvest feast. We know it as the first Thanksgiving.

But according to the Smithsonian Museum, Thanksgiving services began at least 20 years earlier with ceremonies in the Popham Colony in Maine and in Jamestown, where colonists gave thanks for their safe arrival.

And, historically speaking, the Pilgrims would have never considered their feast “Thanksgiving,” which was a religious holiday, according to historians at Plimoth Plantation, a museum dedicated to the history of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.

That 1621 harvest celebration was anything but religious with feasting, singing, games, dancing and even drinking liquor, according to Smithsonian records.

Always a holiday?

President George Washington declared Nov. 26, 1789, an official holiday of “sincere and humble thanks,” and the nation’s first Thanksgiving under the new Constitution was celebrated.

But that was a one-time deal. Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving be commemorated every year on the last Thursday in November. It is said that Lincoln selected that date because it was close to the date when the Mayflower anchored at Cape Cod, on Nov. 21, 1620.

In 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday, to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and strengthen an economy still recovering from the Great Depression.

In 1941 Congress reversed Roosevelt’s decision. The president approved a joint house resolution establishing by law the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day...
Read entire article at Journal Star

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James Baker's new book, Thanksgiving, The Biography of an American Holiday (University of New Hampshire Press, 2009), provides an excellent study of how the present Thanksgiving Day event developed in the last couple of centuries. It is slightly marred by the anachronistic assertion that the 1621 event in Plymouth Colony was not a Thanksgiving because it did not conform with later events organized by Puritans in New England. I wrote about that idea on HNN in 2005: The Truth About Thanksgiving Is that the Debunkers Are Wrong.

This year's newspaper article in the Journal Star claims that there are "Smithsonian records" that indicate that the "1621 harvest celebration was anything but religious with feasting, singing, games, dancing and even drinking liquor." The Smithsonian does not possess any primary records about the event. And the newspaper article says that "historians at Plimoth Plantation" claim that "the Pilgrims would have never considered their feast 'Thanksgiving' which was a religious holiday." The 17th century was far more complex than these simplifications suggest.