When most people think of Thanksgiving, their heads quickly fill with visions of football, traffic nightmares and larger-than-life sizes of their favorite childhood cartoon characters floating above New York City.
But if they delve a little bit deeper they may bring up fond, warm memories of spending time with their families and loved ones around loving tables filled with abundant amounts of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, among other delectable foods.
If anyone were to ask the typical American why they think of these things, they'll probably tell you it's our nation's way of commemorating the first brutally rough year the pilgrims spent in Plymouth and plentiful harvest they were able to gathering with the help of their native neighbors.
Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, many Native American tribes held feasts and celebrations each year to, “insure a good harvest,” for the upcoming year. The first European settlers who partook in the celebrations that we would associate with the holiday were in Newfoundland on May 27, 1578.
According to Associate Professor Rick Shenkman of George Mason University and editor of the History News Network, early Thanksgiving celebrations include one in Texas in 1598 in San Elizario celebrating the arrival of Juan de Onate after, “leading a group of settlers on a grueling 350-mile long trek across the Mexican desert.”
In 1607, colonists in Jamestown VA and Popham ME also held feasts of Thanksgiving to celebrate their safe arrivals to their new lands.
Even though the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 after their first brutal New England winter, they would not hold the celebration for another two years.
In the spring of 1623, drought destroyed many of their crops. The colonists fasted and prayed that their situation would improve. Soon after, Captain Miles Standish informed them that a Dutch supply ship was bringing much-needed provisions. On June 30, 1623, the pilgrims celebrated what is attributed to be the first official Thanksgiving.
While U.S. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson made declarations for days of thanksgiving during their presidencies, it would not become an official holiday until 1863. President Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday in celebration of the Union's victory over the Confederacy in Gettysburg.
In fact, much of what we associate with Thanksgiving comes from around this time. On his website, Shenkman writes that pilgrims never dressed the way we portray them.
“Buckles served as an emblem of quaintness,” he explained. While no one is sure what the pilgrims ate during the first Thanksgiving, most historians agree that they probably did not feast on turkey, even though they were familiar with it.
Last year Americans feasted on 2.4 billion pounds of potatoes, 248 million turkeys and 750 million pounds of cranberries. But many of the staples we associate with the holiday were unavailable to the pilgrims.
“They didn't have corn on the cob, apples, pears, potatoes, or even cranberries,” Shenkman said. He said that one food they probably did have is deer meat.
In the 148 years since Lincoln made it a national holiday, the date has only changed twice. To help spur the economy and give merchants more time for Christmas sales U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday in November.
This, according to the Smithsonian, was met with great resistance largely because of the change required rescheduling Thanksgiving Day events such as football games and parades. By 1941, a Congressional resolution changed Thanksgiving back to its original date.