Thanksgiving: 10 Surprising Facts to Impress Your Friends this Holiday
Did you grow up learning the Pilgrims came to the New World to flee religious persecution? That’s actually not true. On the Postcard Academy podcast, Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, helps decipher historical fact from fiction.
Don’t worry, this episode is not about tearing down this revered holiday; it’s about revealing historical surprises that most people don’t know about. Listen to our whole conversation on the holiday at the heart of the American experience on the Postcard Academy and subscribe for free.
Here are 10 insights you can use this holiday to 1) impress your friends, and 2) distract your family from collapsing into a political/culture war at the dinner table. Happy Thanksgiving!
The Pilgrims were not fleeing persecution
Before setting sail for the New World, England’s Separatists, or, Saints, as they called themselves, were already enjoying religious freedom in Holland.
They decided to risk shipwreck and pirate attacks crossing the Atlantic because their children were becoming too much like the free-wheeling Dutch. The Separatists wanted to maintain their English identity and remain under English rule — just really far away so they could worship in their own church.
Plus, when it came to work, the Dutch discriminated against the Pilgrims, who were immigrants, and kept them in low-paying, labor-intensive jobs. The Saints wanted out.
America has been rooted in capitalism from the beginning
The Separatists decided they wanted to go to the New World, but they couldn’t afford to get there on their own. They had to make a pact with about 70 financial investors in London, who created a joint stock company with the Pilgrims.
In exchange for some basic supplies and passage on the Mayflower — a cargo ship that usually transported wine and cloth — the Pilgrims would work for these so called ‘merchant adventurers.’ They’d send them fur and timber and fish and whatever else they harvested. After 7 years, they’d split all the assets. That was the plan, anyway. They were all a little unrealistic about the hardship of building a colony from scratch and had to renegotiate after the Pilgrims accrued massive debt and nearly starved to death.
Most people who came over on the Mayflower were not Puritans
Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, only 40 of them were those Separatist Saints (also known as Puritans). The rest were so-called ‘Strangers’ in pursuit of money and a better life, or the ‘American Dream,’ as we say in modern times.
When we talk about the Pilgrims today, we're usually talking about both the Saints/Separatists/Puritans and the Strangers in Plymouth.
The godmother of Thanksgiving was a rockstar feminist
Widowed at 34 with a fifth child on the way, Sarah Josepha Hale needed a way to support her family. Melanie writes that Sarah’s big break came in 1827 when her anti-slavery novel Northwood: A Tale of New England became a bestseller. She went on to become editor of the most popular magazine in the U.S. and had enough influence to convince President Lincoln to call for a national Thanksgiving during the middle of the Civil War to try and unify the country.
But that’s not all she did. As editor of Godey’s Lady Book, Sarah thought Americans wanted to read about American life, and started hiring American writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Harriet Beecher Stowe, growing the magazine from 10,000 to 150,000 monthly paid subscribers — with many more people borrowing copies to read.
In her personal life, Sarah also:
fought for higher wages and property rights for women;
created the first daycare center for children and the first public playground; and
wrote poetry and fiction and a reference book on women in history.
FDR tore the U.S. in two when he changed the date of Thanksgiving for Christmas shopping purposes
Since Lincoln’s time in 1863, Thanksgiving was traditionally held on the last Thursday in November — but this wasn’t law. During the Great Depression, business owners convinced President Roosevelt to move up the date of Thanksgiving by a week.
“Roosevelt thought that he could help boost the economy if he gave more shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so he changed the date and this caused a huge national uproar,” Melanie says.
“Half the governor’s decided to go along with Roosevelt’s new date and the other half said, ‘No, we’re traditionalists. We’re going to stay with the original last Thursday in November.’ So for a few years, Americans celebrated not on the same day, but on two different days. And finally, in 1941, Roosevelt admitted that he’d made a mistake, that this wasn’t helping the economy…Congress agreed on a piece of legislation that would make Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of every November and so it has been ever since.”
Texas, Mississippi, and Colorado actually celebrated both Thanksgiving days during FDR’s madcap experiment.
Black Friday does not refer to shops going from ‘in the red’ to ‘in the black’
Of course, when we hear ‘Black Friday,’ we think of post-Thanksgiving shopping discounts. According to Melanie, it’s a myth that the phrase refers to the time of year when shops start turning a profit. Instead, it stems from another Thanksgiving tradition: American football.
“We think it came from Philadelphia in the 1970s,” Melanie says, “on the day after Thanksgiving. The traffic was terrible and a newspaper reporter referred to the congestion as ‘Black Friday.’”
Texas has a legitimate claim to hosting the ‘first’ Thanksgiving
Texans claim that in 1598, a group of Spanish people, who’d been traveling for months through the desert, stopped in San Elizario, where they rested and peacefully broke bread with Native Americans before moving on. Regardless, it’s the Massachusetts story of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans breaking bread together that we celebrate as the first Thanksgiving.
There are two firsthand accounts from that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621. One written by William Bradford, the governor the Plymouth Colony, and one by Edward Winslow, a prominent member of Pilgrim society. Neither mentions the word Thanksgiving because back then the word ‘thanksgiving’ meant a religious day to give thanks for a specific blessing, like rain during a drought. Native Americans had their own thanksgiving rituals. But in 1621, when the colonists and Wampanoag sat down together, they were giving general thanks, similar to the way we celebrate Thanksgiving today.
The Pilgrims and Wampanoag were not dressed in somber clothes or feather headdresses
You’ve likely seen representations of Pilgrims in dark somber clothes with big buckles on their hats, but they didn’t dress like that. If you visit Plimouth Plantation or the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Massachusetts, you’ll learn they dressed in bright colors like blue, violet, and green.
You might also imagine the Wampanoag men in full feathered headdresses, but that’s what Native Americans wore in the Plains, not New England, according to Melanie.
The first Thanksgiving did not include pie or cranberry sauce
These days you’ll likely find cranberry sauce on the Thanksgiving Day table, and cranberries were available in New England in the 1600s, but they probably weren’t served at dinner.
“Cranberries alone are too sour to eat. You have to mix them with something and the Pilgrims would not have had sugar with them,” Melanie says. “Sugar was very expensive and they probably did not bring it with them on the Mayflower.”
And while you could find pumpkins, they were probably stewed and not in pie form due to the whole lack of sugar and flour situation. Also, no apples until the end of the 17th century. And no potatoes.
The first Thanksgiving really was rooted in peace and gratitude
Decades after the First Thanksgiving, relations between the English settlers and the Native Americans turned deadly, and there are some people today who consider Thanksgiving a day or mourning because of the later history when Native Americans were killed and driven off their land.
This is a true and tragic part of America’s past that needs to be remembered. But it’s also true that the first Thanksgiving we celebrate today actually was rooted in peace.
Centuries later, as we figuratively tear ourselves apart over differences on social media, it’s worth remembering that we started out better than this. The Pilgrims — Saints and Strangers — immigrated to the U.S. for a better life, and they were welcomed by the Native people, without whom, they would not have survived. In those early years, they worked together and the friendships formed between these two diverse groups should inspire us all year round, not only at Thanksgiving.
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