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As all American school children know, Thanksgiving history is a mix of Mayflower pilgrims, buckled hats, Native Americans, plus Thanksgiving Day parades and lots and lots of turkey.

But dig a little dig deeper, and interesting surprises await.

Just to set the record straight, the following is a true account of the first Thanksgiving in 1621:

The True Story of the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth

In the fall of 1621, Mayflower pilgrims met with of the local Indians to prepare a feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The theme of the celebration was to express gratitude for surviving a long, cold winter during which many of America's first immigrants did not survive. Native American neighbors were invited to say "thank you" for their invaluable help in having survived at all.

The first Thanksgiving in Plymouth lasted three days and included party games,
Native American dances, shooting contests, songs and story telling.

The guest list included Plymouth colony leader, Miles Standish, and his second-in-command John Alden. Also in attendance were Indian leader Massasoit and about 90 members of his tribe, the Wampanoags.

The feast included fowl, venison, shellfish, pumpkin, corn, and wild berries. According to one eye-witness account, the lion's share of venison was courtesy of the Wampanoags who "went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others."

The entire celebration, from beginning to end, lasted THREE DAYS and included party games, Native American dances, shooting contests, songs and story telling.

Today, it's interesting to note no turkey on the menu. Historical documents show that pilgrims enjoying a feast of Thanksgiving "fowl".

For more Thanksgiving tidbits, read on:

Did You Know?

• Since the early colonists had never heard of a fork, the first Thanksgiving meal was mostly eaten hand-to-mouth.

• Early pilgrims didn't wear buckled hats. They really didn't become fashionable until decades later, and pilgrims probably would have considered them too "frilly" anyway.

• Men were the only ones to really enjoy the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth. Back in the day, women and children cooked and served.

Thanksgiving Through the Years

Abe Lincoln
In the midst of the Civil War, Abe Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Since that first Thanksgiving Day, informal gatherings were a popular way to celebrate the Autumn harvest locally. But a national holiday? That wouldn't happen until the 19th century.

That's when Sarah Josepha Hale (side note: she was the author of the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb) -- began a campaign to almost single-handedly make it happen.

Spanning four presidents, the push to make Thanksgiving a national holiday finally reached the desk of President Abraham Lincoln. And it was Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War in 1863, who declared that the holiday would be observed forever after nationwide on every fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving has been celebrated that way every year since. That is, until 1940 -- when the holiday was pushed back a week earlier by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help Depression-hit businesses increase pre-Christmas sales. Although well-intentioned, the widely unpopular decision caused an uproar among Republicans who declared "Franksgiving" to be an abomination. So Thanksgiving was pushed forward again the following year to its traditional fourth week in November.

Freedom from Want, by Norman Rockwell
A family sits down to a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings in "Freedom From Want"
by Norman Rockwell, who painted his famous "The Four Freedoms" series during World War II.

A Modern Thanksgiving

first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924
An ad announcing the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924.

Of course, the commercialization of Thanksgiving continued despite the love of long-held traditions. The staging of Thanksgiving parades was first begun in 1924, for example, to increase Christmas toy sales.

Today, following the nationally-televised parade, Thanksgiving Day football games begin at noon followed by the rapid clearing of Thanksgiving dishes by 4PM in a mad rush to attend early Black Friday sales.

It's little wonder, then, that Thanksgiving marks the start of the "Holy Season of Consumerism".

That said, however, one of the most popular search terms in the Internet Age during Thanksgiving week remains Thanksgiving prayers. So it's good to know that American families can sit still down to a Thanksgiving Day feast to clasp hands, bow their heads, and give thanks for life's many bounties.

Just like pilgrims did in days of old, gratitude is a fine perspective to have.

And no matter what retailers, consumerists, and the cynics have to say, a blessed Thanksgiving, it seems, is here to stay.

More about Thanksgiving history around the Web:

The First Thanksgiving - Top-notch and entertaining of the day from the History Channel, featuring the first Thanksgiving and related myths, fictional "first person" accounts, video presentation, related links & resources.

The History of Thanksgiving and Its Celebrations - Nice overview of Thanksgiving traditions through the ages and across cultures, beginning with the Greeks on up to modern times.

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