The Biggest Thanksgiving Myths & Legends, Debunked

As maybe the oldest American holiday, Thanksgiving has almost 400 years of myths, urban legends, misconceptions, and falsehoods to go along with its delicious menu of turkey and pumpkin pie. Some Thanksgiving legends are fundamentally incorrect interpretations of history that never seem to go away, while others are more pop culture oriented. And of course, there are some are just nonsensical Thanksgiving conspiracy theories.

While some might say that "everything you know about Thanksgiving is wrong," it's more accurate to say that many of these stories took hold early in modern American teaching and culture. Despite many attempts to get the facts out and set people straight, these myths are still powerful and drive the way we think about the holiday, even nearly four centuries after Native Americans and settlers enjoyed a common feast.

Here are 13 Thanksgiving myths, urban legends, and silly conspiracies to discuss with your most confrontational relatives this holiday. It'll be a fun and lively debate! Some are probably things you've been getting wrong for years, and others are fringe beliefs that very few people subscribe to.

  • A Huge Sit-Down Dinner

    THE MYTH: Natives and pilgrims sat down to dinner together at a huge table groaning with food and utensils.

    THE REALITY: The harvest festival of 1621 was a three-day affair, with people coming and going as they pleased, eating wherever they found room, probably with their hands. The colonists in the New World certainly didn’t bring fancy china and silver with them, and would have made food that could be picked up and carried around.

  • Turkey Makes You Sleepy

    THE MYTH: The tryptophan in turkey makes you sleepy.

    THE REALITY: This is technically true, but not in a practical sense. The tryptophan in turkey does help create serotonin, which is a key hormone in regulating sleep. But the turkey would need to be eaten on an empty stomach, and won’t actually reach your brain if you eat too much other food.

    The sleepy feeling from eating a lot of turkey is more likely a combination of confirmation bias, exhaustion from a long day of being around family, alcohol consumption, and the general sleepiness that comes from eating too much and needing blood diverted from the brain to the digestive system.
  • The Thanksgiving Menu

    The Thanksgiving Menu
    Photo: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    THE MYTH: We eat turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving because the Pilgrims ate it.

    THE REALITY: Our traditional Thanksgiving menu is based much more on what’s generally served at New England fall festivals, and has become greatly customized by region. Depictions of the original Thanksgiving include mentions of fowl, but not turkey in general. Pumpkin might have been served, but not in any kind of congealed pie form, while local vegetables and fish would have had a prominent place at the feast.

    And, sweet potatoes weren’t introduced into American diets until long after the Pilgrims landed in New England, being popularized by Spanish settlers returning to Europe from South America.
  • Truman's Turkey Pardon

    THE MYTH: Harry Truman was the first U.S. President to offer an official pardon of a turkey, choosing from two birds to be saved in 1947.

    THE REALITY: This is one of the more common variations on an urban legend that goes around every year. It's partially true, but mostly false. 1947 was the first year that a free turkey was supplied to the White House, but the bird was for Christmas, not Thanksgiving, and it wasn't pardoned, it was eaten by the First Family.

    While several presidents jokingly referred to turkeys they weren’t going to eat as being “pardoned,” the first president to actually pardon a turkey in a White House ceremony was George H. W. Bush in 1989.