Thanksgiving facts and Thanksgiving myths have blended together for years like so much gravy and mashed potatoes, and separating them is just as complicated.
Blame school textbooks with details often so abridged, softened or out of context that they are ultimately made false; children’s books that simplify the story to its most pleasant version; or animated television specials like “The Mouse on the Mayflower,” which first aired in 1968, that not only misinformed a generation, but also enforced a slew of cringeworthy stereotypes.
High school textbooks are particularly bad about stating absolutes because these materials “teach history” by giving students facts to memorize even when the details may be unclear, said James W. Loewen, a sociologist and the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.”
“That mind-set pervades everything they talk about and certainly Thanksgiving,” he said.
The timeline is relative.
The Mayflower did bring the Pilgrims to North America from Plymouth, England, in 1620, and they disembarked at what is now Plymouth, Mass., where they set up a colony. In 1621, they celebrated a successful harvest with a three-day gathering that was attended by members of the Wampanoag tribe. It’s from this that we derive Thanksgiving as we know it.
But it wasn’t until the 1830s that this event was called the first Thanksgiving by New Englanders who looked back and thought it resembled their version of the holiday, said Kate Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth.
The holiday wasn’t made official until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared it as a kind of thank you for the Civil War victories in Vicksburg, Miss., and Gettysburg, Pa.
Beyond that, claiming it was the “first Thanksgiving” isn’t quite right either as both Native American and European societies had been holding festivals to celebrate successful harvests for centuries, Mr. Loewen said.
A prevalent opposing viewpoint is that the first Thanksgiving stemmed from the massacre of Pequot people in 1637, a culmination of the Pequot War. While it is true that a day of thanksgiving was noted in the Massachusetts Bay and the Plymouth colonies afterward, it is not accurate to say it was the basis for our modern Thanksgiving, Ms. Sheehan said.
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