In elementary school, kids tend to learn a nicer (and white-washed) version of Thanksgiving; a retelling of the events that's more of a happy story than a true, accurate historical account. As they grow older, many learn that that initial recounting of what happened at "the first Thanksgiving" and how the holiday came to be isn't as pleasant or innocent as your history teachers led you to believe. There are several historical "facts" about Thanksgiving we were actually taught in school that are, well, not exactly the most historically accurate — in fact, they're completely false and damaging.
Taking a hard look at what you were actually taught when it comes to American history can be a daunting task, and truthfully answering kids' questions when they ask things that aren't all turkeys and gratitude can feel uncomfortable or intimidating, but it's super important. Knowing what the real stories are — even when uncomfortable — is essential to recognizing the reality of the day instead of only focusing on a warped retelling. You and your kids both need to know about the actual historical facts regarding Thanksgiving. That way, you can work to right wrongs and understand the intricacies of the holiday, while still making sure to acknowledge the more positive parts of the day, like practicing gratitude. Set the record straight this year and acknowledge (or learn a little bit more about) the true historical facts of the holiday rather than some of those questionable stories you learned back when you were in school.
1. Pilgrims & Native Americans Always Co-Existed Harmoniously
While happy Thanksgiving stories would have you believe that the Pilgrims arrived and became immediate (and lasting) friends with the indigenous peoples they found already living there, that's not exactly how things went down. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, told Mic, "there's no evidence that there were good relations at all," between the Pilgrims and the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.
According to the National Museum of the American Indian, however, the Wampanoags and English colonists were initially respectful of one another, but by 1675, their relationship had completely deteriorated to the point of war and violence. The museum claims on its website that the Wampanoags' cooperation is what ultimately allowed the English colonists to successfully make it in their new home.
2. At The First Thanksgiving, The Pilgrims and Native Americans Sat Down As Friends
The commonly depicted first Thanksgiving feast looks more like an incarnation of modern day traditions, with family and friends all crowded around one table, eating together. Nope. They were not sitting alongside each other as your history books would like you to believe. According to TIME, while the Englishman probably did sit and eat at a table, the Native Americans probably ate on the ground. In that same article, Kathleen Wall, a colonial foodways culinarian, told TIME that no one is really sure exactly why the group of indigenous people and colonists ate near one another. However, Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's tribal historic preservation officer told Indian Country Today Media Network that the Wampanoags heard the English colonists celebrating the return of a group of armed colonists who'd traveled to what's now Mystic, Connecticut and killed 700 Pequot men, women, and children. A group of about 90 Mashpee Wampanoags ventured closer to see what the ruckus was all about, found that they were not in imminent danger, but decided to camp nearby nonetheless, just to make sure everything was OK.
3. The Menu Featured A Turkey, Sides, And Pies
Though your family probably eats the way you do on Thanksgiving due to "tradition," the way that most families eat in modern day is different than how the Pilgrims and Native Americans likely ate at any point ever, let alone to mark the celebration that became known as the first Thanksgiving. While you likely have a turkey as the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving feast, the Pilgrims, in all likelihood, also had goose or duck, passenger pigeons, venison, eels, and shellfish, as foodways culinarian Kathleen Wall told Smithsonian.
4. The Pilgrims Had The Hardest Time
Many stories about the origins of Thanksgiving suggest that things were far more difficult on the recently-arrived Pilgrims than they were for those indigenous people already living here, but that's not exactly accurate. While the Pilgrims undoubtedly had a difficult transition to a land that was unfamiliar to them, the Wampanoags had to manage invaders who brought disease, death, and desolation, so let's not pretend as though the Pilgrims were the only ones facing hardship.
5. Thanksgiving Became An Annual Holiday Right Away
The origins of Thanksgiving as the holiday you know now, on the fourth Thursday in November, doesn't directly harken back to the "original" feast. Prior to the middle of the 19th century, it was celebrated sporadically, depending on the president or the state in which you lived. According to the History Channel, President Abraham Lincoln was the first to declare Thanksgiving an official holiday in 1863, when it was celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Then, in 1939, as the Great Depression was ending, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to give shoppers extra days between Thanksgiving and Christmas to boost the economy and moved it up one week, according to a different article on the History Channel's website. A couple of years later, in 1941, under pressure from Congress and constituents, he signed a bill establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the official Thanksgiving holiday.
6. It Was A One Day Event
Though Thanksgiving now is just a one day event, it was initially a longer celebration. According to the aforementioned article from TIME, the original — if you want to call it that — Thanksgiving was actually a three day long affair, rather than just one (or two) dinners. In the previously-mentioned article, Peters told Indian Country Today Media Network that the Wampanoags camped nearby for several days after arriving at the village on a "fact-finding mission." She also said that a proper Wampanoag celebration of thanksgiving and gratitude — which would take place at certain times each year — would've lasted four days.
7. It's A Celebratory Day For Everyone
Many indigenous people do not celebrate Thanksgiving Day, but instead consider it a day of mourning, as Mic reported. Rather than feasting with family and friends, some Native Americans mark the National Day of Mourning at Cole's Hill in Plymouth to raise awareness for the issues they currently face, as well as to remember the enslavement and death that occurred right before the first "Day of Thanksgiving," as Boston.com reported. You may never have even considered that part of the holiday (or know much about it), but it's important to acknowledge the realities of the initial Thanksgiving, instead of ignoring the actual history in favor of a happier, nicer story. That way, you can mark the day in a much truer and more honest way.
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