A few Thanksgiving myths to pass with the gravy

Posted Nov. 06, 2009, at 7:23 p.m.

All right. Halloween is over and your sugar buzz has finally subsided. The leftover Bolster Bars are in the freezer and that costume is going into the bag for Goodwill. That means only one thing.

It’s time to get ready for Thanksgiving. You have seen the stuff in the stores already. I know, the worst part about the “eating holiday” is trying to make conversation in between the gravy and pie courses, especially with that odd-smelling cousin from Summerville, S.C.

In order for you to cover all of those embarrassing conversational lulls, I have collected some myths and untruths about the holiday. Don’t thank me. It’s my job.

Actually, I did very little work and will rely heavily on the scholarly research of history associate professor Rick Shenkman, the star of George Mason University. I know, the only time you heard about George Mason was its 2006 NCAA basketball upset of UConn 86-84 that put them in the Final Four.

(I purchased and wore a George Mason cap to wear to the Red Sox spring training games, where I am surrounded by UConn fanatics. None of them ever mentioned the cap. Not once.)

But I, of course, digress, as is my wont.

When that hick from Summerville starts talking about NASCAR, just hit him with myth No. 1. The pilgrims did not hold the first Thanksgiving, not according to Texans. Our chauvinistic friends in Texas claim they started it all in 1598, 23 years before the pilgrims. They claim that “Thanksgiving” started when they celebrated the arrival of Spanish explorer Juan de Onate in San Elizario, on the banks of the Rio Grande. Our boy Juan had just led hundreds of settlers on a 350-mile thirsty trek across the Mexican desert. No word about the availability of margaritas.

Or maybe Virginia. The Berkeley Plantation folks on the James River claim the first Thanksgiving in America was held there on Dec. 4, 1619. In their view it’s not the Mayflower we should remember, it’s the Margaret, the ship that brought 38 English settlers to the plantation in 1619. The story is that the settlers had been ordered by the London company that sponsored them to commemorate the ship’s arrival with an annual day of Thanksgiving. You might think that this was the first time anybody outside Virginia has ever heard of this, but in 1963 President Kennedy (a well-known Massachusetts boy) officially recognized the plantation’s claim.

No one really knows, according to professor Shenkman, whether anyone at that first Thanksgiving (wherever it was) ate any turkey at all. The records showed they ate plenty of deer, but there was no corn on the cob, apples, pears, potatoes or even cranberries. There were not any pies either, since the precious sugar they brought from England was long gone. Imagine. No pies.

Emily Post would be shocked to learn that everyone ate with their fingers since there were no forks invented yet. Tell that to your cousin from Spring Hill, Fla. And my mother complained about my table manners.

Thanksgiving was strictly a New England holiday until Abraham Lincoln decided it was a national holiday, in 1863. You didn’t know that, now did you?

When your aunt from Connecticut appears to be dozing off, tell her that the Pilgrims never landed on Plymouth Rock. It was an invention of the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce. According to our professor, the whole story started with the very dubious testimony of one Thomas Faunce, a 95-year-old man who started telling the tale more than a century after the Mayflower landed. And, the pilgrims actually landed first at Provincetown before they went to Plymouth.

We all love the log cabin myth. Not true, says professor Shenkman. The log cabin did not come to America until the late 17th century, when the Swedes and Germans arrived. The term “log cabin” did not appear in print until 1770. Actually, the pilgrims lived in wood clapboard houses from sawed lumber.

If that’s not enough to get conversation flowing around the table before the football snooze, tell your relatives that Pilgrims never wore black, did not have funny buckles, weird shoes or those steeple hats.

H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy!” But the pilgrims were not all that uptight, apparently. As historian Carl Degler long ago observed, “The Sabbatarian, antiliquor, and antisex attitudes usually attributed to the Puritans are a Nineteenth-Century addition to the much more moderate and wholesome view of life’s evils held by the early settlers of New England.” Historians tell us that they welcomed sexual activity as a God-given responsibility.

Let’s face it. It was a long, cold, New England winter they faced, without central heating.

Party on, pilgrims. Pass the gravy.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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