The Truth About Thanksgiving
For decades, the American population has been eating warm autumn delights such as turkey, potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pie.
"There's a difference between history and myth, and Thanksgiving is a myth," Thorp said. "Myths are very powerful, and quite often they are more important to a society than its history."
The Plimoth Plantation Living History Museum in Massachusetts confirmed the general misconception among Americans that pilgrims and Native Americans began the Thanksgiving tradition during a meal they shared in 1621. The museum, which re-creates the lives of 17th century Plymouth Colony pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans, acknowledged that the feast generally referred to as the "First Thanksgiving" was never repeated nor called a "Thanksgiving" by the pilgrims or native Wampanoag.
"There's only one contemporary account [a published letter of Plymouth colony leader Edward Wilson] that describes a meal, and it wasn't called a thanksgiving feast," Thorp explained. "It was a harvest feast."
Thorp acknowledged that the term Thanksgiving Day did not originate until two years later in 1623; still no documentation showed proof of a sit-down feast. Thanksgiving was not adopted as a National Holiday until 1863; Abraham Lincoln made the proclamation.
Plimoth Plantation Museum Public Relations Manager Jennifer Monac noted that colonial Days of Thanksgivings were one of three observed Holy Days in Plymouth Colony. The other two practiced were the weekly Sabbath and the Day of Humiliation and Fasting.
"In the 17th century there were no days of feasting and fun," Monac said. "Thanksgiving was a day of prayer."
Monac also pointed out that the traditional Thanksgiving dinner was more than 200 years younger than the meal eaten during the 1621 celebration.
"The Thanksgiving people celebrate today is very much a Victorian holiday," Monac said.
Thorp agreed the foods adopted by New England Thanksgivings were influenced by Victorian customs and not available to colonial citizens.
Late historian Alexander Young created the misconception of Thanksgiving in 1841 after he rediscovered the written account describing the 1621 harvest celebration. Young branded the harvest feast of 1621 as the origin of Thanksgiving celebrations practiced in 19th century New England, and the association grew into a popular myth.
"Many of the Indians coming amongst us. with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted," Winslow wrote in a letter to a friend that was later published in 1622.
The only documentation of food shared at the celebration was Winslow's description of large amounts of fowl to feed the village for a week and four deer brought by the Native Wampanoag. Thorp confirmed that the fowl during colonial time would have included ducks, geese, swans and wild turkeys.
"We don't even know if turkey was served," Monac said. "Only four lines were written about the entire feast. We cannot say for sure what side dishes may have been served."
Historians that study the land and resources of Massachusetts in 1621 have developed theories about the remaining side dishes served at the popularized First Thanksgiving feast. Thorp said potatoes and cranberry sauce were more than likely not on the list.
"Many people speak of potatoes or sweet potatoes at the feast, but neither of those would have been fixed because the English didn't eat potatoes in 1620," Thorp said.
Plimoth Museum documented that potatoes had not made their way into the English or Wampanoag diet in 1621. Cranberries, however, were available to the Wampanoag, and were more than likely included in a dish, but not served by itself or as a sauce.
"Cranberries can be quite bitter without sugar, and sugar was expensive and would have been rare in the colonies," Thorp said.
Rachel Collins, a Virginia Tech senior and avid cranberry sauce eater, was shocked to learn the truth behind her Thanksgiving dinner. Her response mirrored the feelings of Blacksburg residents informally polled about the "Thanksgiving myths."
"I like my cranberry sauce, I like my turkey and gravy, and I wouldn't give them up for anything," Collins said.