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The Pilgrims Watched Football (and Other Thanksgiving Myths)

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The Pilgrims Watched Football (and Other Thanksgiving Myths)

by Martha Brockenbrough

Ah, Thanksgiving. That time of year when citizens of the United States partake in traditions that are even older than our country: watching televised football and parades, and devouring 100,000 calories apiece. Yep, we've been doing this every year since the tradition started, in 1492, with Columbus.

We have the Pilgrims to thank for this great holiday. After declaring a four-day weekend for everyone, they are well known to have slept in late on Thanksgiving morning, skipped their routine shower, and gorged themselves on cheese puffs and beer. The male Pilgrims--especially those who had placed bets on the teams--looked forward to watching football, while the females rubbed their hands together in gleeful anticipation of the holiday shopping season.

What was especially nice about the holiday was that the Pilgrims always invited their Native American landlords over for dessert. And the Native Americans always looked so festive with their giant feathered headdresses bearing cornucopias full of apples and mini pumpkins.

My point is this: A lot of what we know to be "true" about Thanksgiving really isn't. Determining exactly what did happen is difficult, because the Pilgrims didn't have camcorders shooting tape after tape of video that they could later sell to a local television station when something scandalous happened.

For starters, we don't even know for certain if the Pilgrims served turkey, although it's a strong possibility. I know, I know. Without turkey, is it Thanksgiving? In truth, I would say yes. I have a vegetarian friend who every year roasts a "tofurkey." She insists it tastes every bit as good as it sounds. Gulp.

That said, there are some things we do know about Thanksgiving. So without further fibbing (I promise!), here's the truth about three widely held Thanksgiving myths.

Myth #1: The happy Pilgrims were celebrating a great harvest

Actually, the harvest of 1621, when the legend of our Thanksgiving began, wasn't great at all. The barley, wheat, and peas the Pilgrims brought with them from England had failed. Fortunately, the corn did well enough that they were able to double their weekly food rations. The Pilgrims were happy to be alive: The previous winter had wiped out 47 people--almost half their community.

It wasn't a coincidence that the corn did well. A man named Squanto, who was a member of the Wampanoag tribe, coached the Pilgrims on how to plant and fertilize it.

Did You Know?

Squanto's life story would make a great movie. He grew up on the same land that the Pilgrims inhabited. Before their arrival, he befriended a British explorer named John Weymouth, who taught him English. Later, Squanto was captured and sold into slavery in Spain. With the help of a Spanish priest, Squanto reconnected with Weymouth, who helped him return to his homeland. But by the time he arrived, his village had been wiped out by the plague, which had been brought by the slave traders. Later, Squanto helped the Pilgrims when he saw them struggling in his abandoned ancestral home.

What's more:

The guests brought most of the food. When the Pilgrims invited their Native American guests, they weren't prepared to feed everyone who came. A Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, sent his men home for supplies.

The party lasted three days. They played games, shot guns, shot bows and arrows, and played something called "stool ball." (It's not what it sounds like! The game was like croquet--not something they played because they didn't have a pigskin handy.)

Despite what you see in some paintings, the Native American guests didn't wear giant feathered headdresses. Those were worn by Plains Indians.

Myth #2: From then on, we've celebrated Thanksgiving every year

The truth is, the Pilgrims weren't partiers, and they didn't always feel compelled to express their thanks. In fact, the Pilgrims didn't have another "thanksgiving" celebration until two years later, when they held a feast to celebrate the end of a drought.

According to Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, by Robert J. Meyers, many colonial communities probably celebrated successful harvests locally and gave thanks at special times as the need arose. In 1644, for example, the New Amsterdam Dutch held "Thank Days" in gratitude for the safe return of their soldiers, who had been fighting with Native Americans in Connecticut.

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