Thanksgiving is heavily steeped in traditions.
But as sometimes happens with history and facts, myths can get in the way.
James W. Baker, senior historian at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., has some thoughts on why that is with Thanksgiving.
“It is an invented tradition,” he said. “It doesn’t originate in any one event. It is based on the New England Puritan Thanksgiving, which is a religious Thanksgiving, and the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England and maybe other ideas like commemorating the Pilgrims. All of these have been gathered together and transformed into something different from the original parts.”
In honor of this week’s festivities, we take a look at the traditions of the holiday and separate fact from fiction on everything from history to football and more.
The first Thanksgiving
In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag tribe members shared a three-day autumn harvest feast. We know it as the first Thanksgiving.
But according to the Smithsonian Museum, Thanksgiving services began at least 20 years earlier with ceremonies in the Popham Colony in Maine and in Jamestown, where colonists gave thanks for their safe arrival.
And, historically speaking, the Pilgrims would have never considered their feast “Thanksgiving,” which was a religious holiday, according to historians at Plimoth Plantation, a museum dedicated to the history of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.
That 1621 harvest celebration was anything but religious with feasting, singing, games, dancing and even drinking liquor, according to Smithsonian records.
Always a holiday?
President George Washington declared Nov. 26, 1789, an official holiday of “sincere and humble thanks,” and the nation’s first Thanksgiving under the new Constitution was celebrated.
But that was a one-time deal. Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving be commemorated every year on the last Thursday in November. It is said that Lincoln selected that date because it was close to the date when the Mayflower anchored at Cape Cod, on Nov. 21, 1620.
In 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday, to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and strengthen an economy still recovering from the Great Depression.
In 1941 Congress reversed Roosevelt’s decision. The president approved a joint house resolution establishing by law the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
What was on the menu?
Historians aren’t sure what the Pilgrims and Wampanoag ate that first Thanksgiving, other than venison and wild fowl.
However, they are certain that several of today’s Thanksgiving mainstays were not on the menu.
Potatoes — white or sweet — had not made their way to the Wampanoag by 1621, writes Kathleen A. Curtin, food historian at Plimoth Plantation, on its Web site.
“The white potato was virtually unknown by the average early 17th century Englishman,” she wrote. And in the early days of the sweet potato, the tuber was considered a rare delicacy available only to the wealthy, “who believed it to be a potent aphrodisiac,” Curtin wrote.
Cranberries, if they were at the meal, would have come from the Wampanoag, who liked the berries for their tartness. It would be another 50 years before the colonists boiled cranberries and mixed them with sugar, Curtin wrote.
And although pumpkin was probably part of the first Thanksgiving, it couldn’t have been in the form of pie. The Pilgrims had brought sugar with them on the Mayflower, but by the time of the feast, the supply had dwindled, Curtin said.
Also, the Pilgrims didn’t have an oven, so other pies, cakes and breads were not possible at all.
So what did they eat? History.com offers this possible menu from 1621:
Seafood: cod, eel, clams, lobster
Wild fowl: Wild turkey, goose, duck, crane, swan, partridge, eagles
Meat: Venison and seal
Grain: Wheat flour and Indian corn
Vegetables: Pumpkin, peas, beans, onions, lettuce, radishes and carrots
Fruit: Plums and grapes
Nuts: Walnuts, chestnuts and acorns
Herbs and seasonings: olive oil, liverwort, leeks, dried currants and parsnips.
Sorry, history indicates the Pilgrims did not wear buckles on their hats, shoes and garments. Nor was it likely they dressed in black and white for Thanksgiving.
Buckles didn’t come into fashion until later in the 17th century, according to Plimoth Plantation.
And black and white were worn only on Sunday and formal occasions. Most likely, Pilgrim women wore dresses of red, earthy green, brown, blue violet and gray at the first Thanksgiving. Men would have dressed in white, beige, black, earthy green and brown.
Modern Thanksgivings: You’re getting sleepy
We have long been told that the tryptophan in turkey is why we get so sleepy after the Thanksgiving feast.
While it is true turkey contains small amounts of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps produce serotonin, you would have to eat 40 pounds of turkey to get enough tryptophan to really make a difference, according to Dr. Michael Breus on WebMD. com. Even then it would not be effective, he said.
“A more likely explanation for holiday sleepiness is the beer or wine you ate with dinner or while watching football while the meal was being prepared,” he wrote in his WebMD blog. “Another possibility could be the increase in carbohydrates (stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc.), which is causing an increase in insulin and blood sugar to compensate for the increase in food. This increased production has been shown to cause increases in sleepiness.”
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade
Originally known as the Macy’s Christmas Parade, the event began in 1924. It is said this tradition was started by first-generation immigrants who wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving with the type of festival their parents enjoyed in Europe.
That first parade included floats, professional bands and live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. At the end of the parade, Santa Claus was welcomed into Herald Square.
Live animals were replaced by large animal-shaped balloons in 1927. Felix the Cat was the first balloon to appear in the parade.
The parade was suspended from 1942-1944 during World War II, as the rubber and helium were needed for the war effort.
The parade resumed in 1945 and became a permanent part of American culture in 1947 after it was featured in the film, “Miracle on 34th Street.” These days, 3.5 million people line the streets to watch the parade.
The day after Thanksgiving has been the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season since Macy’s began holding its Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924, according to WikiAnswers.
As for “Black Friday,” it seems to have started sometime in the 1970s. Originally, Black Friday referred to the heavy traffic that Friday. But these days, the term “Black Friday” refers to the beginning of the period in which retailers are turning a profit — or “in the black.”
Thanksgiving and pigskin
Thanksgiving has been a football day since the inception of professional football in the early 20th century. But it became a national institution in 1934 when the Detroit Lions put together a game with the Chicago Bears, and Detroit has played a Thanksgiving game ever since.
During the 1950s, the Detroit game was the only NFL turkey-day contest. But in the 1960s, the American Football League started holding Thanksgiving games to compete with the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys, also of the NFL, also began an annual holiday game in 1966.
When the NFL and AFL merged in 1970, the two AFL games were dropped, leaving the Detroit and Dallas games for Thanksgiving fare — that is, until the dawn of the NFL Network, which now adds a third game to the holiday schedule for its subscribers.
College football games have also been a Thanksgiving staple for decades. Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, for example, was a Thanksgiving tradition that produced the “Game of the Century” in 1971. By the late ’70s, most of the major college matchups moved from Thursday to Friday to avoid the NFL behemoth. That included Nebraska-Oklahoma, which played on Fridays until the Big 12 Conference ruined the rivalry and substituted an NU-Colorado game for day-after-Thanksgiving fare. Texas and Texas A&M, however, will play on Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving and the movies
There is always a line at the movies on Thanksgiving night.
After the turkey, the football and more turkey, lots of families head to the theater.
In the past couple of decades, Hollywood has banked on it. Now, every Wednesday before Thanksgiving, theaters get a handful of blockbusters, at least one or two of them family-driven.
The trend really took off in the late ’80s/early ’90s, with movies like “Scrooged,” “Back to the Future II” and “My Girl” grossing solid openings. The New York Times first wrote about the trend in 1993: “This season’s abundance of films is the result of a spiraling game of one-upsmanship in recent years in which film studios try to get their holiday movies, especially those aimed at family audiences, into theaters earlier and earlier.”
The biggest Thanksgiving blockbusters are 1999’s “Toy Story 2,” 2007’s “Enchanted” and 1996’s “101 Dalmatians.”
This year, three movies open here Wednesday:
* “Old Dogs” (PG): Robin Williams and John Travolta are buddies who end up having to look after twin 7-year-olds. A good family choice.
* “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (PG): Wes Anderson uses stop-motion animation to bring the beloved Roald Dahl book to life. “Fantastic” follows a sly fox who angers a group of farmers and puts his family in danger. It’s ideal for kids, parents and twentysomething hipsters alike.
* “Ninja Assassin” (R): Action-packed gorefest about an orphan who becomes a ninja and then becomes an assassin and then betrays his team of assassins and then fights a lot of people. This is made for video-game-playing twentysomething males and video-game-playing teen males who are good at sneaking into R-rated movies.
Good advice: Buy your tickets early. The most popular holiday movies are often sold out.