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Butch Mazzuca: Thanksgiving fact and fiction

There so many myths associated with Thanksgiving it’s impossible to name them all.

Why? I can’t say for certain, but probably it’s because Thanksgiving is an invented tradition and doesn’t originate with any one specific event. The Thanksgiving we celebrate today is in reality an amalgam of myth, tradition and legend. Here are a few of them:

Thanksgiving wasn’t always celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. The first Thanksgiving occurred sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11. Unlike our modern holiday, the first Thanksgiving feast was three days long. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Lincoln proclaimed a national day to express thanks for the many blessings enjoyed by Americans.



In 1939, during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt changed Lincoln’s chosen date to the second to last Thursday of November to extend the post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas shopping season. The move was met with confusion and criticism, and in 1942 FDR signed a law making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of November. The law is still in effect today.

At the Berkeley Plantation in Virginia, there are those who believe the first Thanksgiving was held on Dec. 4, 1619, a full two years before the Pilgrims’ festival. These folks also tell us it’s not the Mayflower we should remember, but rather the Margaret, the little ship that brought 38 English settlers to that plantation in 1619. Few outside Virginia know about this Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, in 1963 President John Kennedy officially recognized the Virginians’ claim.



Without access to the Pilgrims’ carte du jour at that first Thanksgiving, it’s almost certain they didn’t eat turkey. Nor did they have corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, cranberries or Pepperidge Farm stuffing. The only foods we know they had for sure were venison and wild fowl.

Did the Pilgrims really land at Plymouth Rock? According to historian George Willison, who devoted his life to the subject, the story about Plymouth Rock is a fabrication. Willison believed it was a public relations stunt pulled off by townsfolk to attract attention. What Willison discovered was that the Plymouth Rock legend rests entirely on the dubious testimony of 95-year-old Thomas Faunce, who told the story more than a century after the Mayflower landed.

Not many people know the origins of the Plymouth Rock story. At the end of World War II, Willison wrote a book on the topic. But with millions of servicemen returning after the war and being reintegrated back into the economy, Americans had more on their minds than Pilgrims. So is it distinctly possible that we’ve gone merrily along these many years repeating the same old story as if it were true.



Regardless of the story’s veracity, the people of Plymouth stick by hoary tradition while local tour guides insist that Plymouth Rock is THE rock.

Question: Why did the Pilgrims dress in black? Answer: While it’s certainly possible some Pilgrims preferred dark, drab clothing, the reality is that most Pilgrims favored bright colors. There’s much evidence indicating that the Pilgrims wore green, red, yellow, violet and blue garments, along with the more common white, gray and brown. And they didn’t wear those funny buckles, weird shoes, or black steeple-hats, either.

Plymouth Plantation historian James W. Baker explains that in the 19th century, when the popular image of the Pilgrims was formed, buckles, dark colors and steeple hats served as an emblem of quaintness. That’s the same reason illustrators give Santa Claus a buckle. Even the blunderbuss, with which Pilgrims are identified, is more of a symbol of quaintness than a firearm with actual utility.

Were the Pilgrims and Puritans the same? Ronald Reagan got this one wrong when he referred to Puritan John Winthrop as a Pilgrim. Pilgrims and Puritans were two entirely different groups. The Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower and lived in Plymouth. The Puritans arrived a decade later and settled in Boston. Most Pilgrims came to America in search of riches. By contrast, the Puritans came to America strictly in search of religious freedom.

That we confuse Pilgrims and Puritans would have horrified both. Puritans considered the Pilgrims incurable utopians. While both shared the belief that the Church of England had become corrupt, only the Pilgrims believed it was beyond redemption.

Thanksgiving carries with it different meanings for different people. But the common thread is that Thanksgiving is a day we set aside to give thanks for blessings both known and unknown. If anyone living in this country can think of nothing to be thankful for today, well, I suspect he or she has a very poor memory.

Quote of the Day: “It’s not what we say about our blessings, but rather how we use them that is the true measure of our gratitude.”

Butch Mazzuca is a business consultant and writes weekly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@earthlink.net.


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