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VERIFY: 4 common Thanksgiving myths and the real facts behind them

The VERIFY team separated fact from fiction on 4 popular Thanksgiving myths including who started the turkey pardoning tradition and how Black Friday got its name.
Credit: AP
Corn, left, and Cob, two turkeys from Iowa who will attend the annual presidential pardon, hang out inside their hotel room at the Willard Hotel, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Thanksgiving is almost here and with the annual festivities also comes years upon years of myths that have developed around one of the biggest holidays of the year for Americans.

The myths, misconceptions and legends around Thanksgiving predate the internet, yet have persisted in the digital world all the same.

Here are four common Thanksgiving myths, all of which are false, and the truth behind the holiday weekend’s various stories.

MYTH: Thanksgiving has been celebrated every year since the nation’s founding

According to the National Archives, George Washington issued a proclamation that named Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a "Day of Publick Thanksgivin". 

At that point, however, Thanksgiving wasn’t codified into law as an annual holiday. It was up to the sitting president to declare a day of “Thanksgiving and Prayer” and set the day and month for the holiday. And there were some years where no such day was declared.

For example, Thomas Jefferson opted against it while president. Monticello says Jefferson was against it because of his beliefs in separating religion from the government. Back then, Thanksgiving days were more religious-focused holidays.

Thanksgiving was established as one of the first four federal holidays in 1870, when Congress passed the Holiday Act. That law established Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Independence Day as holidays, but Thanksgiving was the only one where the president had the discretion to set the date each year. 

By that time, Thanksgiving already had an informal date. Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation set Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November and subsequent presidents had followed that precedent.

However, Thanksgiving would have fallen on the last day of the month in 1939, so Franklin Roosevelt moved it to the month’s second-to-last Thursday because he worried a shortened Christmas season would dampen the nation’s recovery from the Great Depression. Some states defied the president’s move and made it state law that Thanksgiving was the last Thursday and so Congress sought to set a fixed date for the holiday to combat the confusion. A law was passed in 1941 that set Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November. 

MYTH: Presidential turkey pardoning began with Abraham Lincoln or Harry Truman

The history of presidents sparing Thanksgiving turkeys can be traced back to President Lincoln, according to the White House Historical Association, but he didn't officially pardon a bird. The group, which isn't associated with the White House itself, describes how in 1863 Lincoln’s son interceded to save a turkey brought home to be used for Christmas dinner -- but Lincoln never actually pardoned the turkey nor did it become a tradition soon after.

The White House Historical Association explained in a separate article that the Truman Library disputes the myth that Truman started turkey pardoning. It describes how the government’s 1947 encouragement of “poultry-less Thursdays” incited the poultry industry to begin the official turkey presentation to the White House in response, thus starting that myth.

Instead, the tradition is credited to George H.W. Bush in 1989. The White House itself backs that claim up: “President George H.W. Bush was the first to formally grant the bird a Presidential pardon, taking a cue from the animal rights activists picketing nearby.”

That doesn’t mean prior presidents didn’t also spare turkeys. A 2019 National Constitution Center blog noted that John F. Kennedy publicly decided his 1963 turkey should remain off the dinner plate. The center also described how Ronald Reagan joked about pardoning a turkey during the Iran-Contra Affair, but that turkey was already scheduled to live its life out in a zoo.

The 2018 and 2019 White House pardoned turkeys were sent to end their days at Virginia Tech’s Gobblers Rest exhibit where students and veterinarians care for the birds and the public can visit them and learn about the university’s animal and poultry programs. 

However, the Constitution Center noted that these turkeys don’t live long anyway. “The turkeys, who are bred to be eaten, have a very short lifespan. The National Turkey Federation, which raises birds for the presidential pardon ceremony, says a pardoned bird will be lucky to live two years after it's saved by the President.”

MYTH: Eating turkey makes you sleepy

While scientists don’t always agree on what exactly makes you sleepy after your Thanksgiving dinner, they do all agree that it’s not the turkey.

The Johns Hopkins children’s hospital breaks down how the myth about sleep-inducing turkeys spread. An amino acid in the turkey called L-tryptophan gets turned into the chemical serotonin by the brain, which can calm people down and make them sleep. But L-tryptophan can only make people sleepy right away if it’s eaten or taken by itself without any other amino acids, which turkey has plenty of.

What they credit to the post-Thanksgiving meal drowsiness is blood flow. Johns Hopkins says that eating a large meal means the body has to divert more blood to the stomach to digest it all, which takes blood away from the brain and makes us tired.

The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation agrees that crediting turkey with the drowsiness is a myth, adding that it doesn’t have any more of the amino acid than other proteins like chicken, beef, pork and fish. But the foundation points to a different reason for the Thanksgiving drowsiness: carbs.

“Consuming carbohydrate-rich foods like dinner rolls, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes and stuffing causes a chain reaction that ends with the creation of the sleep-inducing chemical called melatonin in the brain,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott in a 2018 article.

Texas A&M Health agrees with OMRF that it’s the carbs causing people to feel sleepy. A&M even cites the National Sleep Foundation when explaining the carbohydrates leads to the creation of melatonin, which is the chemical that induces sleep.

Ochsner, which is the largest healthcare provider in Louisiana, cites both theories for Thanksgiving drowsiness. It said the sleepiness you feel is most likely caused by the carbohydrates accompanied with alcohol and a comfortable spot on the couch. However, the healthcare provider also gives weight to the theory it’s caused by overeating. The group said digesting large amounts of food -- especially carbohydrates -- is hard work for your body and thus it shifts its energy use from activity to digestion.

MYTH: It’s called Black Friday because it’s the day stores’ numbers are in the black

There’s not really a definitive answer on how Black Friday got its name, but most sources describing the pseudo-holiday’s history follow a similar timeline.

Dictionary.com says Black Friday was first used by factory managers in the 1950s because so many workers called in sick the day after Thanksgiving. It then says that Black Friday was how Philadelphia traffic cops referred to the day in the 1960s because they had to work 12-hour shifts in terrible traffic. It then caught on with people in Philadelphia and soon enough caught on nationwide.

Dictionary.com says that it wasn’t until the 1980s that people began to associate the day with the phrase “in the black,” used to describe a business’s profits. In fact, it notes that black as an economic descriptor has normally been a bad thing: the Great Depression began with Black Tuesday and there was a Black Friday in 1869 when a financial panic began over gold.

In 1994, Philadelphia journalist Joseph Barrett elaborated on the traffic cop origin story by explaining no traffic cop was allowed to take the day off and the day was historically associated with the worst traffic jams of the year because of the convergence of the Christmas shopping season beginning, schools and workplaces taking the day off and the Army-Navy football game bringing in outside visitors that weekend.

Barrett and a colleague used the police term “Black Friday” on a front-page story to describe the city’s traffic problems on that day and the pair continued to use the term year after year until eventually the television stations picked it up and it spread from there.

The Foundation for Economic Education agrees with the other sources on the timeline of events, and even provides some credibility to the journalist’s story. Barrett said that retailers tried to push back on the negative connotation of Black Friday by calling it “Big Friday” once the name Black Friday started to take off. The FEE includes that in a timeline of Black Friday’s etymology and adds that the myth about stores “being in the black” became to be embraced by the retailers in the 1980s and 1990s who enjoyed the more positive connotation to the name.

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