Food & Drink

The Real, Shocking History of Thanksgiving

Published On 11/21/2016 Published On 11/21/2016

Because there are many myths and downright falsehoods surrounding Thanksgiving, we at Thrillist have decided to revive our old Historical Investigations Squad (now known as Thrillist Investigates), dust off our World Books, sell them at a garage sale, and do actual research in public libraries to bring you the true story of that special day every year where you watch the Detroit Lions lose a football game and discover disappointing flaws in your uncle’s belief system.

So put on your best pleated corduroy pants and that cowl neck sweater your grandma thinks makes you look like a less handsome Gregory Peck, and prepare to be salaciously jostled with the real story of Thanksgiving.

Early claims to America's Thanksgiving throne

Especially in Europe, the idea of providential holidays has been around forever, and is startlingly straightforward and logical: days of fasting when the bounty hasn’t been good, and feasts when it has. Even in America, there were reports of such holidays occurring before the 1620s. Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was so excited that he actually arrived in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 without dysentery and/or being dead that he had a tribe of Timucua Native Americans over for dinner. And in 1619, British settlers who reached the James River in VA on December 4th claimed it was “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Point being, it wasn’t a crazy thing for the Plymouth colonists to send out a providential party E-vite. And, in terms of morale, they needed that sort of thing because their entire lives since arriving at Plymouth had basically been one large hazing ritual, involving “exposure to the elements, scurvy, and outbreaks of contagious disease” and half the population dying in the first six months, NONE of which I learned in middle school reading Patricia Clapp’s lustful middle school romance novel, Constance: A Story of Early Plymouth. 

The turning point happened in March, 1621, when the settlers finally realized that, instead of Tom Hanks’ houseboat from Sleepless in Seattle, they were actually essentially living on a disease-ridden floating hospice ward, and maybe it would be a good idea to get off and check out the New World. Also, they had recently run out of bacon. Once on shore, the Pilgrims met an Abenaki Indian who spoke English and knew cool but sinful English handshakes popular in London at the time, and he introduced them to Pawtuxet tribe’s Squanto, who also knew English, but only because he’d been kidnapped by an English boat captain before escaping to London, learning other cool handshakes, and hitching a ride home with another less kidnap-happy English crew. 

Squanto felt bad for the Pilgrims because they looked like gaunt pale scarecrows and wouldn’t stop snidely voicing their suspicions that Bartholomew Allerton had eaten most of the remaining bacon, and so he taught them how to cultivate the land around Plymouth by planting corn, fishing, tapping maple trees, and ceasing to stuff entire vines of poison oak into their mouths. More importantly, he helped the Pilgrims negotiate a “later for that gangster bullshit” agreement with the Wampanoag tribe and their chief Massasoit to co-exist peacefully. 

Ain't no party like a Puritan Thanksgiving because a Puritan Thanksgiving lasts three days

At some point between September 21st and November 9th (it’s unclear, and anyway, the Pilgrims used the Julian calendar at the time, and I refuse to learn how that differs from our much superior Gregorian model), the Pilgrims discovered that the corn they planted could actually be harvested, and didn’t taste like trash and secrets. Edward Winslow’s account also mentions that, unlike the corn, the peas “were not worth gathering” because “the sun parched them in the blossom” and no one wanted to take responsibility for burning the peas, though naturally everyone quietly blamed this on Little Bart Allerton. Thrilled to have actual food and stop eating old cheese rinds, Governor William Bradford decided that this called for one of those providential holidays, and announced a three-day feast, inviting the Wampanoag. Here’s the actual text from the exchange between Bradford and Massasoit.  

Governor Bradford: Bruh, what u doing in Nov?
Massasoit: Taking back r lands u stole. JK. Dunno. U?
GB: LOL. We made corn. And corn = party. It’s going to be lit. Come. 
M: Corn, huh? That sounds lit as hell. What should we bring? 
GB: Nothing. We got this. 
M: Hahahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahaa. 
GB: Hahahahahahahhahahahaha. 
M: Hahahahaha. 
M: Srsly. 
GB: Dunno, maybe a bunch of stuff? Literally think we only have corn. BA (EDITOR’S NOTE: believed to be Bart Allerton) fucked up the peas. 
M: Not going if BA is there. 4 real.

Anyway, the party went down, and Thanksgiving was actually a three-day affair. Massasoit got an invite (+90) and brought five deer, as well as cod, bass, and other fish, while the Pilgrims went on a “fowling mission” and brought home “waterfowl” and wild turkeys to be served alongside that corn and barley and no peas. Wild berries were involved, as were chestnuts, and squash. Rumor has it there was even “recreation,” which, for the buzz-killing Puritans wasn’t something fun like playing Stratego, or tossing iniquitous milksop Bartie Allerton into pricker bushes, but just meant wearing more loose-fitting smocks or amusing themselves by thinking up different ways to do chores. Regardless, by all accounts (well, two), it was a rousing success, and should’ve quickly spread across all the colonies and turned into the national holiday we all know and have mixed feelings about. But it didn’t quite happen like that.

Making Thanksgiving a national holiday took long as hell

Fast forward 169 years using Claire’s standing stones from Outlander: In 1789 President and noted cherry tree despiser George Washington calls for Americans across the nation to celebrate the end of the war and the Constitution’s ratification and the eradication of all cherry trees with a Thanksgiving proclamation. And yet still, for 38 more years, the idea of Thanksgiving is just kind of a loose idea, celebrated by a few states or called out in proclamations by church leaders but always on different days (the South ignores the holiday for the most part, arguing not without merit that their everyday fatty food already constitutes a feast). Enter Sarah Josepha Hale. 

Fresh off the blazing hot success of her tavern banger "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Hale is actually the most powerful woman writer and editor in the nation and an insane Thanksgiving superfan. Starting in 1827 she begins a persistent campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday by harassing politicians of all stripes and reminding them that "Mary Had a Little Lamb" is actually an allegory about murder.

But it wasn’t until the heart of the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln finally got sick of her letters, and declared in 1863 that, in order to “heal the wounds of the nation” he would make Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. Historians think he picked this somewhat arbitrary day possibly because it was close to November 21st, the date the Pilgrims got to America (according to the Gregorian calendar! THE JULIAN CALENDAR IS A TRAVESTY). 

It was celebrated on this Thursday every year until 1939 when FDR decided that he would move it up a week so that stores during the Great Depression would have more time to put up Christmas decorations and sell presents like Buck Rodgers Ray Guns and Road Master wagons. Although the logic might’ve been there, the American people freaked the hell out. Former Republican Presidential candidate and possible eater of cats Alf Landon declared that Roosevelt sprung the change “upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of Hitler.”

Roosevelt doubled down, saying he would also move the next year’s Thanksgiving, but would leave it in the hands of the states to decide. Twenty-two kept the standard date, twenty-three moved Thanksgiving to the earlier week, and three -- Texas, Colorado, and Mississippi -- celebrated holidays on BOTH Thanksgivings. It was literal holiday chaos across the nation for the next two years until FDR finally signed into law a resolution that Thanksgiving occur on the fourth Thursday of every November in 1941. 

And so, this year, as you enjoy your historically inaccurate pies and listen to your uncle’s surprisingly hot take on the season finale of Atlanta, raise a glass for the historical meaning of this strange Calvinist providential holiday and our ancestors. Well, everyone but Bart Allerton.  

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's national writer-at-large, and has never trusted an Allerton. Sell him corn wholesale @KAlexander03. 



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