17 Thanksgiving Myths, Debunked

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What better way to start conversation during Thanksgiving dinner than by debunking some of these common Turkey Day myths?

1. Myth: Abraham Lincoln pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey.

Some credit Lincoln with the first ever presidential Thanksgiving turkey pardon, but that’s the wrong holiday. In 1863, the Lincoln family received the bird as a gift meant to be cooked for Christmas dinner. But Tad Lincoln, 10 years old at the time, grew fond of the turkey, which he named Jack. Shortly before Jack was to be killed, Tad learned of the turkey’s impending fate. He successfully pleaded for a stay from the turkey executioner and then ran into one of his father’s cabinet meetings, crying, “He’s a good turkey and I don’t want him killed.” So Lincoln “pardoned” the bird. (Fun fact: The next year, during the election of 1864, a special polling place was set up on the White House grounds for soldiers who wanted to vote. Jack the turkey strutted into the line of waiting soldiers, leading the elder Lincoln to ask his son whether the turkey would vote. Tad replied: “He is under age.”)

2. Myth: Harry S. Truman started the tradition of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey.

In 1947, Truman did receive one from the National Turkey Federation, but he most likely ate it. From then on, presidents received turkeys for the holiday. As for who pardoned the first: It’s complicated. John F. Kennedy didn’t eat his, but he didn’t call this “pardoning,” though the press did. Nixon sent at least some of his turkeys to petting farms. Reagan jokingly used the word pardon. And it was President George H. W. Bush who officially said, “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy—he’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”

3. Myth: Tryptophan is what makes you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner.

We’ve all heard relatives blame their post-Thanksgiving-dinner sleepiness on tryptophan. But that’s not quite fair. It’s true that turkey contains the amino acid tryptophan. And it’s true that the human body can use tryptophan to make serotonin, which helps us sleep. But turkey contains lots of amino acids that the body works hard to get to the brain for various purposes. There’s less tryptophan than those other amino acids; the amount of tryptophan that actually makes it to the brain to create serotonin could best be described as ... poultry. (Not sorry!) Plus, turkey has less tryptophan than other foods like cheese and nuts. Thanksgiving grogginess is probably just due to overeating, and drinking if that’s your thing.

4. Myth: Washing a turkey before cooking it kills bacteria.

Some believe you need to rinse a turkey before cooking it to kill bacteria, but the USDA actually recommends against it. When you wash raw poultry, you risk kitchen contamination. Just cook your bird to 165°F (about 74°C) to eliminate scary bacteria.

5. Myth: Pop-Up thermometers pop when the turkey is cooked.

In fact, many of these thermometers are designed to pop up when the turkey has reached around 180-185°F—in other words: overcooked! And Consumer Reports tested pop-up timers and found that some popped when the meat was still severely undercooked. Experts recommend you use a regular probe thermometer instead. By the way, according to the USDA website, while checking the temperature of a cooking turkey, it’s important to monitor “the innermost part of the thigh and wing, and the thickest part of the breast.”

6. Myth: Turducken is a new dish.

Turducken is not a new dish, though it was only really popularized around the turn of the 21st century, when announcer John Madden was known to rhapsodize about it during Thanksgiving NFL games. There are recipes going back to at least 1774 containing multiple birds within each other. In 1807, a recipe called “roast without equal” emerged that called for 17 birds: sky-lark, thrush, quail, ortolan, lapwing, golden plover, partridge, woodcock, teal, guinea-hen, guinea fowl, wild duck, fowl, red pheasant, wild goose, bustard, and fig pecker.

The creator of the turducken, specifically, is up for debate, but many trace its roots to Louisiana or to Louisiana-based chef Paul Prudhomme, who claimed to invent the dish while in a Wyoming lodge. Fun fact: According to Men’s Health, a typical Turducken contains more than 12,000 calories. A regular turkey clocks in at around 2400.

7. Myth: Stuffing is cooked inside the turkey and dressing is cooked in a dish.

While there are some who subscribe to that distinction, geography generally plays a bigger role in deciding which term is used. Dressing is more common in the southern United States, whether cooked inside the bird or not, while stuffing is more common up north.

8. Myth: Canned pumpkin puree isn't actually pumpkin.

There was a rumor going around in 2016 that canned pumpkin puree was actually a puree of—gasp—squash! But this one is kind of complicated. The company Libby’s makes about 85 percent of the pumpkin puree sold worldwide and they use Dickinson pumpkins in their recipes. And if you want to sell a food and call it "pumpkin" in the U.S., the FDA allows food prepared from any of the following to apply: "golden-fleshed, sweet squash, or mixtures of such squash and field pumpkin." Field pumpkin is what most of us picture when we think of a pumpkin—it's round and orange and ready to be carved. Dickinson pumpkins aren't so pretty; they're tan with less defined ridges. As for whether they can be considered pumpkins, experts disagree. Some say they're pumpkins, some say they're squash, some say it doesn't matter because it's all squash anyway!

9. Myth: There was popcorn at the first Thanksgiving.

It’s a misconception that there was popcorn at the first Thanksgiving. We can trace this myth back to the 1889 novel Standish of Standish by Jane G. Austin—not to be confused with the other Jane Austen. During the 1620s, the type of corn that grew in Plymouth was Northern Flint corn, which doesn’t have the strong kernels that are ideal for popping.

10. Myth: The 1621 celebration was a Thanksgiving.

We call it “Thanksgiving” but ... it probably wasn’t that. Pilgrims did celebrate “thanksgiving days” after fortunate events, but those were usually religious days. They’d go to church and give thanks to God, which is not what the Wampanoag people and Pilgrims did during their 1621 celebration, as far as we know. To be clear, what we do know is limited. It mostly comes from one letter written by Edward Winslow. In 1841, his letter was published in Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers by Boston writer and publisher Alexander Young. Young called the occasion the “First Thanksgiving,” even though there’s no mention of “thanksgiving” in the original text.

11. Myth: The "Thanksgiving" celebration was the first Thanksgiving.

Even if it had been a thanksgiving, it wouldn’t have been the first one in North America. First of all, many Native American tribes also held ceremonies in which the purpose was to give thanks. And many other European settlers did, too. In 1565, a group of Spaniards invited the Timucua tribe to their thanksgiving in Saint Augustine, Florida. In 1598, another group of Spaniards held a thanksgiving celebration on the Rio Grande. And in 1619, another thanksgiving took place near Jamestown.

So the 1621 festival was not the reverential day (or three days) some picture. It was more like a harvest festival. About 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag people got together and partied. In addition to a lot of eating, they likely had games, races, and mark shooting. The Pilgrims were known to brew beer, so there may have been some imbibing as well.

12. Myth: The Pilgrims invited the Native Americans to the celebration out of thanks.

We say that the Pilgrims invited Native Americans to the festival out of gratitude for helping them with the harvest because it makes for a nice story, but there’s no way to confirm that it’s true. Edward Winslow’s letter simply says there were “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”

13. Myth: The Pilgrims fled to American to escape religious persecution.

The Pilgrims are famous for their religious lifestyle. But they didn’t come to America to escape religious persecution like some claim. In fact, they had already done that when they left England and moved to Leiden, Holland during the early 17th century. They then decided to leave Holland where they had religious freedom, but were having trouble making ends meet. Some also feared losing their English identity among the Dutch.

14. Myth: The Pilgrims wore hats and shoes with buckles at Thanksgiving.

And by the way, Pilgrims didn’t wear black and white or buckled hats and shoes at the meal. Black and gray were reserved for Sundays, but considering this Thanksgiving wasn’t a religious day, they likely wore their regular clothes, which could be red, green, brown, blue, or a number of other colors. Plain leather was used for shoe laces and belts because it was cheaper and more fashionable than buckles.

15. Myth: The day after Thanksgiving called Black Friday because business get "back in the black" thanks to all the shopping done that day.

It’s a myth that the day after Thanksgiving is named for being the day that businesses get “back in the black” after being financially in the red. In fact, the most popular explanation for the name says that police in Philadelphia began calling it “Black Friday” in the 1950s because many local stores held sales for the crowds in town for the Army-Navy football game. The police hated this chaotic day that involved working overtime, so they used the color “black” to mean “bad.” It was a way of expressing distaste for this day that made things difficult for them. Within about a decade, the whole city was aware of the nickname. It became a well known term all over the U.S. around the mid- to late-1980s.

16. Myth: It's always been the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

It’s a misconception that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was always a celebration in honor of Thanksgiving. Originally, it was the Macy’s Christmas Parade. And actually, you could say that the first parade in 1924 was really honoring Macy’s, itself, as much as anything else. The parade commemorated the flagship store’s expansion into what was then considered the world’s largest department store under one roof. It took place on Thanksgiving day, but it focused on reaching the store’s Christmas window display titled “The Fairyfolk Frolics of Wondertown.” Over the next few years it would be identified by different names—the Thanksgiving Parade, the Christmas Parade or even the Annual Show—but by the 1930s it was solidly the Thanksgiving Day Parade

17. Myth: Thanksgiving is an exclusively American holiday.

Finally, it’s not true that Thanksgiving is an exclusively American holiday. There are comparable celebrations around the world. Canadian Thanksgiving is very similar to the American one, but it ostensibly traces its history back to explorer Martin Frobisher, who landed in Canada and held a thanksgiving in 1578. Though we could probably make a list of myths about Canadian Thanksgiving, too. As historian Peter Stevens notes, “there is no evidence that connects the modern Canadian Thanksgiving to Frobisher’s sixteenth-century celebration.”

Some places celebrate versions of Thanksgiving because of historical connections with America. Grenada, Australia’s Norfolk Island, and Leiden, Holland all fit that bill. And there are other holidays which share certain aspects of American Thanksgiving. Germany has Erntedankfest, a similar harvest festival of thanks. And Japan has a holiday which evolved from a harvest festival and now celebrates worker’s rights. Its name, Kinro Kansha no Hi, can be translated to “Labor Thanksgiving.”

11 Festive Facts About Hanukkah

A Hanukkah menorah (traditional candelabra), dreidels (spinning tops), and sufganiyot (jelly donuts)
A Hanukkah menorah (traditional candelabra), dreidels (spinning tops), and sufganiyot (jelly donuts)
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Every winter, Jewish people around the world spend eight nights lighting candles, eating latkes, and spinning dreidels. But beyond the menorahs and fried food, what’s Hanukkah really about? Here are 11 festive facts about Hanukkah.

1. Don’t worry about spelling Hannukah wrong.

The Hebrew word Hanukkah means dedication, and the holiday is colloquially called the Festival of Lights. But you’ve probably seen the word spelled a variety of ways, from Hanukkah to Hannuka to Chanukah. Because the word is transliterated from Hebrew, there’s not an exact English equivalent for the sounds made by the Hebrew characters. So technically, you could spell it Khahnoocca and you wouldn't necessarily be wrong, but most people would probably be confused.

2. Hannukah celebrates a military victory and miracle.

During the eight nights of Hanukkah, Jews light a candle to pay tribute to a miracle that occurred back in 165 BCE. The Maccabees, an army of Jewish rebels, conquered the Syrian-Greeks, who had outlawed Jewish practices and defiled the holy Temple in Jerusalem by putting an altar of Zeus in it and sacrificing pigs. The Maccabees then rededicated and reclaimed the Temple, and although they only had enough oil to light a lamp for one day, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days.

3. Hannukah is not the biggest Jewish holiday.

The Torah makes no mention of Hanukkah, and the Jewish religion places much more importance on holidays such as Passover and Rosh Hashanah. But because Hanukkah usually occurs in December, around Christmas time and winter break when people of many religions are celebrating the season, Jews living in the United States in the early 20th century began placing more importance on the holiday. Today, Jews around the world (even in Israel) have followed suit, and Hanukkah is more important than it once was.

4. Hannukah food isn’t necessarily the healthiest.

Hanukkah has its own set of customary foods. To celebrate the holiday, Jews fry foods in oil to acknowledge the miracle of the oil. They may chow down on latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), kugel (noodle or potato casserole), and gelt (chocolate coins).

5. The letters on a Hannukah dreidel form an acronym.

Wooden and metal dreidels near glittering gold coins
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At Hanukkah, kids play with dreidels, which are small spinning tops. Tradition says that before the Maccabees revolted, Jews weren’t legally allowed to read the Torah, so they would study the holy text while pretending to gamble with spinning dreidels. Each of the four sides of a dreidel has a Hebrew character: Nun, Gimel, Hay or Shin. The four letters are said to stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham"—meaning "A great miracle happened there"—which refers to the miraculous, long-lasting oil.

6. The dates of Hannukah change each year.

Because the holiday is based on the Hebrew calendar, there’s no set Gregorian date range for Hanukkah. While it always starts on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev, that date can correspond to anywhere from late November to late December. This year, Hanukkah is fairly late, beginning on the evening of December 22 and going to December 30.

7. Sometimes Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving.

In 2013, Hanukkah overlapped with Thanksgiving, giving rise to countless Thanksgivukkah memes and jokes about cranberry-filled sufganiyot and sweet potato latkes. Sadly, the next Thanksgivukkah won’t occur until 2070, when the first night of Hanukkah will coincide with a particularly late Thanksgiving dinner.

8. Some Jews give money rather than gifts on Hannukah.

Hanukkah gold gelt coins
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Traditionally, Jews celebrated Hanukkah by giving their kids and relatives gelt (money) rather than wrapped gifts. But because holiday gift-giving plays a big role for both Christians and secular people, many Jews now give and receive Hanukkah presents instead of money. To acknowledge tradition, though, most Jews give children gelt in the form of chocolate coins wrapped in gold or silver foil.

9. You’ll need to light 44 candles on Hannukah.

Hanukkah menorahs—which some Jews prefer to call a chanukiah, to differentiate it from the true menorah at the Temple—have nine branches, eight for each night plus a helper candle called a shamash that lights the others. Jews light the candles in the menorah from left to right, lighting a new candle, candles for the previous days, and the helper candle each night. You’ll need to use a whopping 44 candles to celebrate Hanukkah since you light two candles the first night, three the second night, four the third night, and so on.

10. You can buy scented candles for your Hanukkah menorah.

A big part of Hanukkah is lighting candles, but some Jews opt for a less conventional approach. Besides buying candles in different colors and non-toxic varieties, there are also scented candles available for Hanukkah menorahs. If you want to make your home smell like vanilla, raspberry, or even sufganiyot, there’s a scented candle for you.

11. Hanukkah songs aren't really a thing—at least for adults.

Christmas songs start playing on the radio long before Thanksgiving, but although you might know a few Hanukkah songs, music isn’t a huge part of the Jewish holiday. Well-known songs such as "I Have a Little Dreidel" and "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" are mainly for children, and songs like Adam Sandler’s "The Chanukah Song" are mostly for laughs.

10 Vintage Holiday Party Tips from Old Etiquette Manuals

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gregory_lee/iStock via Getty Images

The holiday party season is always packed with events, and sometimes it can feel like more of the same. Spruce up your festivities by taking inspiration from party mavens of the past. Here’s some vintage holiday party advice for discerning hosts.

Holiday Party Tip No. 1: “An appropriate rime or jingle by way of invitation adds to the charm of this very delightful season.”

All holiday parties start with an invitation, and Dame Curtsey’s Art of Entertaining for All Occasions (1918) has you covered. The book includes a whole host of suggestions for the wording of your invites. For example, never miss the opportunity to throw in a rhyme:

“We wish you a Merry Christmas
And hope you all will come
To our Christmas tree and party
And help us enjoy our fun!”

Too vague? How about this short and snappy holiday party rhyme: “Come and see, our Christmas tree, Wednesday next, at half-past three.” Or, if you're worried about tardiness, perhaps you might prefer this invitation/warning:

“Won’t you come to our Christmas tree?
We’ll all be glad to see you—
Please come at eight, and don’t be late.”

Holiday Party Tip No. 2: For a fancy dress party, “there is a wide range of historical and mythological characters to select from.”

These days, most of us reach for an ironic novelty Christmas sweater when the invite reads “costumes encouraged.” But back in the days of yore, holiday party looks were rather more elaborate. Etiquette, Health and Beauty (1899) recommends an outfit with a unique design and accessories based on the invitation’s description. Let’s say it’s a wintertime ball: An “ice maiden” look can be easily created from “a short white dress of some thin material, and a veil of the same.” Simply re-purpose glass chandelier drops as icicles; “a fan painted with snow scenes and robins would be a suitable one to carry with such a dress.” Delightful!

Holiday Party Tip No. 3: “Simulate the sparkle of newly fallen snow.”

Vintage Christmas ornaments
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The Good Housekeeping Hostess (1904) recommends using silver and white decorations for your Christmas tree to create a magical feel. Lightly brush the branches with glue and then add a sprinkling of salt, which under the soft lights will have “the appearance of glistening frost.” Etiquette and Entertaining (1903) says that the room should be “gaily decorated” with “long swags of evergreens caught up in the center and at each side with a bow of red or blue ribbon” for a cheerful look.

Holiday Party Tip No. 4: “If you are entertaining 10 or more guests you had better have punch.”

Punch is the classic holiday party drink. The 1930s book Shake ‘Em Up says simple finger food should be laid out on the other side of the room from the punch bowl to “keep the guests in motion.” What goes in the punch bowl? “For the Christmas or New Year at home, egg-nog has long been the accepted beverage,” but the authors admit that it is “a nuisance to make.”

Holiday Party Tip No. 5: “Guests can help themselves from [a] party nut tree.”

A 1956 ad for Royal Nuts recommends that holiday party hosts fashion a fabulous Christmas nut tree for their guests. The “tree” is made by shaping a loaf of brown bread into a cone and then sticking it onto a candle holder so it stands up. Then, the host should spread the cone with cream cheese (made green with food coloring) and stick nuts onto the tree with toothpicks for a fabulously festive appetizer sure to get guests talking.

Holiday Party Tip No. 6: “Let the first care be, not the cakes and apples, but the games and other entertainment.”

Who needs food and drink when you have party games to play? An 1876 article in American Agriculturist exhorts any good party host to provide a constant supply of games and amusements so guests don't get bored. It cautions, however, that non-stop games can become tiring. Now and then, hosts should offer attendees “something which will amuse while resting in their seats.”

But if you’re thinking Spin the Bottle, think again. One of the amusements suggested in the article is to create an elaborate ruse in which a young child is dressed up convincingly as a large doll. Guests would then be encouraged to ask questions of the 'doll,' and be shocked when the supposedly inanimate object responds with a nod. The magazine does admit, however, that "any of these tricks, if poorly done, are very stupid."

Holiday Party Tip No. 7: Have an “exciting, spectacular feature” on the holiday table.

Holiday table
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What could be a more exciting centerpiece than a vegetable en flambé? Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook (1956) recommends a flaming cabbage for your holiday party table. You can make your own by hollowing out a cabbage and placing a small can of Sterno inside, then lighting the Sterno. The lamp should be entirely hidden by the cabbage, while the flames should emerge from the cavity. For a little extra pizazz, stick cocktail sausages on toothpicks into the cabbage’s outer surface. Naturally, guests will then gather 'round and cook their own wieners over the open flame.

Holiday Party Tip No. 8: Set the stage, then “in comes Santa.”

A visit from Santa Claus is the highlight of any holiday party. The Complete Hostess (1906) knows how to set the scene. Christmas music should drift into the room followed by “a recitation of The Night Before Christmas by the little hostess, dressed as a fairy.” Now, the poor soul wearing a red fur costume outside the room should ring sleigh bells, then get nearer and nearer, until who should come into the room, but Santa! Then “with many a quip and jest,” Santa should produce a gift for each guest.

Holiday Party Tip No. 9: “Present[ing] a young lady with articles of jewelry, or of dress … ought to be regarded as an offense rather than a compliment.”

Be careful what you give as holiday presents. An ill-chosen gift can offend the host, according to All About Etiquette (1875). Instead, young men should give the ladies in their lives a bouquet, a book, or “one or two autographs of distinguished persons.”

Holiday Party Tip No. 10: Have a solution on hand “for the party which you know will be too much for you.”

Prevention is better than cure, or so says Shake ‘Em Up. Before you attend a festive party where the booze will be flowing, it recommends a few prophylactic measures. “A quart of milk is a conservative preparation,” while “a physician recommends a large plate of green pea soup.” If neither is available, “a pony of olive oil is reputed to coat the stomach lining and ameliorate the wear and tear of subsequent beverages.” While we can confirm that a “pony” equals 1 ounce, we can’t say if these hangover preventers actually work—so attempt at your own risk.

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