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.
Photo: dollyhaul / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

  • Thanksgiving Has Been Celebrated Every Year Since 1621

    Thanksgiving Has Been Celebrated Every Year Since 1621
    Photo: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    THE MYTH: Thanksgiving has been celebrated every year since its first occurrence as a joint feast between Pilgrims and Indians.

    THE REALITY: Up until the 1940’s, Thanksgiving had a spotty history of being celebrated. After the first Thanksgiving, commonly thought to take place in late September or early October, there were periodic celebrations of thanksgiving for good harvests among the 13 Colonies, and the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was given in 1777.

    Up until the outbreak of the Civil War, there were a random assortment of "national days of prayer, humiliation, and thanksgiving.” Some presidents issued them every year, some never did.

  • Thanksgiving is Always the 4th Thursday in November

    THE MYTH: Thanksgiving has always been celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November.

    THE REALITY: Thanksgiving was held on a wide range of days in November until the Civil War. Then, as a symbol of national unity, President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November 1863. Subsequent Presidents continued these declarations, and President Roosevelt solidified the holiday as taking place on the fourth Thursday of November in 1939.

    November had five Thursdays that year, and Roosevelt didn’t want retailers to miss out on a week of Christmas sales. Even for a few years after that, the holiday took place on the next-to-last Thursday of the month, and it was only in 1941 that Roosevelt signed a federal law making the fourth Thursday in November the official day Thanksgiving would be celebrated.

  • Pilgrim Clothing

    THE MYTH: Pilgrims wore their usual clothing of black and white suits, and buckled tall hats and shoes.

    THE REALITY: This was actually a popular style of clothing in England, but not until the 1700s. It made its way into modern (at the time) depictions of the first settlers in the Americas, but it’s not what they actually wore. Shiny metal buckles would be far too expensive to wear simply as affectations, and black and white garb, also expensive to make, would have been reserved for more somber church services on Sundays.

    The other days of the week, early American settlers donned the motley and colorful clothes of people who wore whatever they grabbed before they set off across the ocean.

  • Dining in Gratitude

    THE MYTH: The first Thanksgiving was about two different peoples coming together in gratitude.

    THE REALITY: The first communal dinner between settlers and natives was actually a harvest festival. Any organized giving of thanks to God would have been a strictly religious service that was for white people only – and with no frivolity or joy allowed.

    It’s far more likely that the settlers were enjoying the feasting and games that celebrated a good harvest, when the natives came by, drawn by noise and shooting. They were allowed to stay, and a myth was born.
  • 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.