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The Myth of Thanksgiving

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Not to be a Debbie Downer but as we near every gourmand’s favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, GOOD Magazine drops by like an unwanted guests bearing some tough truths about this November American holiday of feasting and giving thanks. The popular normative and celebrated mainstream history of Thanksgiving portrays “Pilgrims in brass-buckle shoes being saved from starvation in 1621 by kindly buckskin-clad Indians bearing gifts of wild game and corn.” The first documented mention of such an interaction was a letter dated December 1961 mentioning a feast with Native American king Massasoit and his men, but as GOOD points out, “the purpose of this letter makes it suspect: It was sent to England to attract more settlers to Plymouth Plantation. Rather than the founding document of America’s a multicultural past, it’s something of a hyped-up real-estate advertisement.” Ah, advertising, the second oldest profession!

The actual origin of Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today can be traced to a single person, a writer Sarah Josepha Hale who also incidentally penned the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Hale also wrote the 1827 novel Northwood; a Tale of New England, which included an entire chapter on thanksgiving. She laid out quite a spread: a roast turkey with stuffing, pumpkin pie, and “plates of pickles, preserves … and all the necessaries for increasing the seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate.” This florid passage established the template for the traditional turkey dinner, the same menu sentimentalized in Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting Freedom from Want.

We still eat turkey with all the trimmings today largely thanks to Hale’s political acumen. She worked her connections all the way up to President Lincoln, to whom she wrote a personal letter persuading him to make thanksgiving a national holiday. In 1863, a few months after the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln did just that, declaring the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

You can now pick up a Sarah Hale bobblehead at the New Hampshire Historical Society museum.