Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Revisiting The Myth of Yams and Pumpkin Pie

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914)
By Jennie A. Brownscombe

With the approach of Thanksgiving, elementary school aged children in the United States prepare to play yams in school plays, and sing songs about pumpkin pie and cranberries. They may dress up as Pilgrims in costumes with black hats and large, shiny buckles. And they often mime a feast with Native Americans signifying the beginning of a tradition of giving thanks in November. Their parents are undoubtedly delighted—as they should be: every child needs a picture dressed as a yam. 

These elements of Thanksgiving are the same half-truths that I was taught as a child. I say half-truths because Thanksgiving is a constructed holiday—over the years we have pieced together history and popular customs to create this national festival. It's based on a feast of thanksgiving, a religious event where the celebrants gave thanks to their god(s).
The tradition of giving thanks has been practiced by many: after a good harvest year, for example, was practiced by the Celts—giving us Samhain and ultimately Halloween. In North America, the Pueblo, Cherokee, Creek, and others held harvest festivals. So the practice wasn't unique to the early settlers at Plymouth. In fact, Thanksgiving wasn't declared a national holiday until Lincoln's proclamation in 1863—commissioning a Thanksgiving observance on the last Thursday in November. Prior to this, states held their own thanksgiving festivals, and they weren't always in the fall. In 1941, President Roosevelt signed a bill into law setting Thanksgiving as the third Thursday in November. The move was calculated to help retailers combat the Depression with a longer holiday sales period. (And today the holiday sales period has expanded well beyond the Thanksgiving holiday. In fact, the holiday seems secondary to the sales.)

While the 1621 celebration at Plymouth has long been regarded as the first Thanksgiving, historians now know that in 1619, the settlers at the Berkeley Plantation held a mass of thanksgiving to mark their safe arrival at the settlement. The Plymouth group received better PR in part because they provided us with a physical remnant to hold on to, according to author Jim Loewen [video].

Here's a look at the reality behind some other Thanksgiving truths:

The Pilgrims made pumpkin pie, had ham, and ate yams.
The recipe for pumpkin pie was unknown to the Pilgrims, and there is no evidence that pigs were slaughtered. Yams were also uncommon. When the Pilgrims got around to celebrating Thanksgiving, they likely ate a variety of seafood, including lobster, as well as venison, plums, grapes, and grains. Learn more about the original Thanksgiving menu here.

The Pilgrims only wore black clothing, with buckles.
Black and white were for formal occasions, such as Sunday services. And buckles? Well, they didn't come into fashion until late in the 17th-century.

Saying grace before carving the turkey at Thanksgiving
dinner in the home of Earle Landis in
Neffsville, Pennsylvania c. 1942. Public domain.
The Pilgrims and the Native Americans had a dignified meal where they displayed impeccable table manners
Actually, no one used plates or silverware. Instead, they used a cloth napkin to handle hot pieces of food, which was likely just set out on every available surface, including tree stumps, and eaten over three days. The image of a perfect family meal is purely constructed—it was probably a bit more chaotic (like most of our Thanksgivings). 

So who cares? What does it matter if we teach our children that the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock ate pumpkin pie and had cranberry sauce? That they wore funny black hats? These half-truths come to make up our national history. And while it can be difficult for facts to survive the ravages of time, new technologies and methods have made it possible to us to piece together the artifacts we find to paint a picture of the past—an accurate picture. New technologies and methods have made it possible for us to understand what the landscape looked like when early settlers arrived, and how they would have interacted with the land. This information helps us better understand our history as a people and our tendencies as a nation.

In this spirit, as I did last year, I am dedicating this week to history that has survived—history that is around us, that has shaped us, that we walk by everyday without seeing. Our history unites us, as do the half truths. Thanksgiving in the United States is marked by people from different cultures and religions; it is a time to come together under the banner of a shared understanding of a history—and find Black Friday bargain.

Were you ever a dancing yam? What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Share your stories below. Also, if you're interested, you can read a rebuttal of the Thanksgiving "debunkers" here.

version of this post originally appeared in November 2009. I've repurposed parts of it with some editing for this holiday season. Happy Thanksgiving!

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