The History of Thanksgiving For Kids

Bedtime History

Imagine yourself sitting around a large bonfire.  The year is 1621 and you have spent the last year travelling from Europe to America on a boat. The journey was very hard.  When you finally arrived in the “new world” you faced a very hard winter. You and your family lived on the boat through the winter, together with other passengers.  It was extremely cold and there was not much to eat.  But all of that has changed.  As you sit waiting, you see that people are cooking up a huge feast. You smell the cooking meat and vegetables. it makes your mouth water. The cooks include people from Europe that you were on the boat with, and Native Americans who have come to celebrate with you.  It is the first Thanksgiving celebration in America, and you are ready to eat!

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States and other countries. But how did this holiday begin?  Where did it start and why?

The story starts in 1620 when a small ship named the “Mayflower” left from England. On board were 102 passengers.  They were all people from different religions that were feeling unwelcome in Europe.  They wanted to leave to find a new home where they could practice their religion freely.  There were also people onboard who were excited about the idea of buying land, which they couldn’t afford in Europe. They hoped to find a new life and become wealthy in the New World.

The Mayflower made a long and difficult journey across the Atlantic Ocean that lasted 66 days! Eventually, they landed at Cape Cod.  This was much further north than where they were hoping to land, which was at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower travelled to Massachusetts Bay and the travellers disembarked, or arrived and came ashore.  They decided to settle, or make a home, in the area and they began building a village, which is now called Plymouth.

The people who started building the settlement were called “pilgrims”.  Pilgrim means a traveller or settler in a new land. The pilgrims in Plymouth did not have time to build houses to live in before the first winter came.  The winter was very cold and harsh, so most of the pilgrims remained on the Mayflower ship for the winter. They were hungry and cold living on the ship. Many people developed scurvy, which happens when you don’t eat enough fruits or vegetables.  Many also caught diseases that spread easily amongst the crowded living conditions. 

By the end of the winter, only half of the Mayflower’s 102 original passengers were still alive.That spring, in March 1621, the people who were still alive moved off the boat and onto shore to start building their homes. While they were settling on shore, an Abenaki Native American came and greeted them in English. Everyone was shocked to see that he was friendly and that he spoke English. 

A few days later, he returned with another Native American man named Squanto.  Years before Squanto had been kidnapped by Englishmen and brought to England.  But he later returned to America and could now speak English. Squanto became friends with the pilgrims and could see that they needed help.  The small group of 50 or so people were all weak and starving and many of them were ill.  Squanto felt bad for them so he taught the pilgrims how to grow corn, how to fish in the rivers and how to extract sap from maple trees. 

Squanto also helped the pilgrim settlers to form an alliance with a local Native tribe, the Wampanoag. An alliance is a bond or union between two groups that pledge to support each other. 

Later that year, in the fall of 1621, the pilgrims’s first corn harvest was successful.  They had an abundance of corn and were able to eat.  The Governor of the group, William Bradford, organized a feast to celebrate the harvest.  He invited all the pilgrims in the community and their Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. The feast lasted for three days.  While no one wrote down exactly what they ate, we do know that it was an amazing feast for the time, and likely included chicken, deer, corn, lobster, seal, shellfish, and possibly turkey. 

This fest is now remembered as America’s “first Thanksgiving”.  The pilgrim’s likely didn’t call it that, as they would not have known that this feast would turn into a holiday. They also played games and had fun during the three days with their guests.  They considered this celebration a way to give thanks to God and nature for the harvest and alliance with the Wampanoag people. 

The dishes that the pilgrims prepared were likely made using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. The pilgrims did not have an oven and the sugar supply on the Mayflower had run out by the fall of 1621, so the meal did not include pies, cakes or desserts. But the people were happy to have a harvest meal and party and were happy that their nutrition and health had improved compared to last year — and mostly that they were still alive. That is a lot to be thankful for!

The pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving celebration in the fall of 1623. In the two years between, there had been a long drought.  A drought is a long period of time in which it doesn’t rain so everything dries up or doesn’t grow.  Because of the drought, there had been no harvest in the fall of 1622 and people were very hungry.  In 1623, the farming had been good again and they all celebrated as they had before. The practice of fasting, or not eating for a period of time, followed by having a large thanksgiving celebration started to become common practice in other New England settlements outside of Plymouth as well. 

Later, during the American Revolution, the government designated a couple of days of thanksgiving a year.  In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation.In his speech, he asked Americans to show that they are grateful for the happy ending to the war of independence that Americans had just won and the new constitution, or written framework for the country’s rules, structure and order.  Other presidents after George Washington also designated a couple of days of thanksgiving to remember these events. 

In 1817, New York became the first state to have an official Thanksgiving holiday. After that, other states started adopting their own Thanksgiving holiday, with each one being celebrated on a different day. However, the tradition hadn’t spread to the south, and most southern states hadn’t heard of Thanksgiving holiday for a long time. 

One woman decided that she wanted to change this.  She wanted to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale.  She was a writer and wrote many articles and books and even wrote the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.   Sara started a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday and she worked on this for 36 years!  A campaign is a planned effort to make something happen or change. She published articles in newspapers and sent letters to politicians.  Eventually her efforts paid off, when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. He scheduled it to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November. Sara was then known ever after as the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”

Thanksgiving was celebrated annually, or once a year, on this day until 1939.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in order to help stores make more money during the Great Depression. However, people didn’t like the change, and so he ultimately moved it back to the original date in 1941.

Although the original Thanksgiving celebrations were to celebrate the end of the American war of independence and the new constitution, modern American Thanksgiving is quite different.  Now the celebrations center on cooking a turkey and sharing a large meal with family and friends. 

While turkeys are the main dish at most American households for Thanksgiving, it may not have actually been on the menu for the pilgrims’ first thanksgiving feast in 1621. Today, more than 90% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving.  And there are many different ways that people prepare the bird. Most like to cook it in the oven. But some people deep-fry it or smoke it, or find a variety of other ways to make the turkey dish new and interesting.

Other traditional food that Americans eat at this holiday include stuffing or dressing, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.  These are all foods that are “in season” at that time of year.  “In season” means that the fruits and vegetables used are ready to be harvested at that time. 

Another common tradition at Thanksgiving is volunteering.  Many Americans spend Thanksgiving Day doing volunteer activities in their communities.  These activities include holding food drives to collect food for the poor or hosting free dinners for people who are struggling. 

Parades have also become an important part of the Thanksgiving holiday in cities and towns throughout the United States.  One of the largest and most famous is the Macy’s department store parade in New York City.  This parade started in 1924 and was intended to give businesses a chance to celebrate the holiday and advertise their store at the same time.  Today, many Americans tune in on TV to watch the Macy’s parade at Thanksgiving.  The parade follows a 2 ½ mile route and features marching bands, performers, floats and giant balloons.

Starting in the 1950s, the president of the United States has a transition of “pardoning” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year.  This means that those 1 or 2 birds don’t get killed to be eaten, but instead get to go back to living on a farm for the rest of their lives.

Even though Thanksgiving is a modern American tradition, there are similar annual celebrations of harvest that take place all over the world and throughout history. In ancient times, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all held large feasts to say thank you to their gods after the fall harvest.  Thanksgiving also has a lot in common with the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. And Native Americans have a long tradition of celebrating fall harvest with feasts and parties. These traditions are older than the American thanksgiving in 1621, so may have had an influence on the idea to hold a feast. 

Does your family celebrate Thanksgiving?  If so, what are some of your family’s traditions?  When you eat your holiday meal this year, think about the first American thanksgiving at Plymouth.  How do you think that would have been different?  What are some of the things that you are thankful for this year?  However you plan to celebrate, we at Bedtime History wish you a very happy Thanksgiving!  

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