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Myths muddle history of Thanksgiving

LAWRENCEVILLE - The tradition of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving is steeped in myth, legend and little documented history, which often results in a tangled mess of fact and fiction, according to historians.

"In actual fact, we know virtually nothing about the first Thanksgiving," said Michael Winship, a University of Georgia colonial America historian.

The original feast in 1621 occurred sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, according to HistoryChannel.com. After that first harvest was completed by the Plymouth colonists, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer, shared by all the colonists and neighboring Indians.

One popular myth, according to the HistoryChannel.com, is the first Thanksgiving feast was celebrated in 1621 and the pilgrims celebrated it every year thereafter.

The fact is, however, that the first feast was not repeated. Pilgrims, who were religious Puritans, also considered Thanksgiving as a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle, the Web site explains.

Claudio Saunt, a University of Georgia Native American Indian and Early American historian, concurs.

"There was one Thanksgiving Day created in 1622 to give thanks to the survival of a colony after being attacked by Indians," he said. "Thanksgiving back then involved a lot more praying than feasting."

Another myth says the original Thanksgiving feast took place on the fourth Thursday of November, but specifics of the Thanksgiving the U.S. celebrates is lightly documented.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, which he may have correlated with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod on Nov. 21, 1621. Since then, each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939, which was approved by Congress in 1941.

The reason so many myths are associated with Thanksgiving is it is an invented tradition and does not originate from any singular event, according to HistoryChannel.com historian James W. Baker.

Thanksgiving Day is based on the New England Puritan Thanksgiving, a religious thanksgiving and the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England, Baker said. All of these have been gathered together and transformed into the way people will celebrate Thanksgiving around the table today.