American Holidays: Thanksgiving

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11638

When you think of Thanksgiving, do you think of big meals, football and people with funny hats? The story of "Turkey Day" is not what you think. Be thankful that this lesson will tell the whole story!


Social Studies

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with a large feast:

Thanksgiving dinner

Make a list of all your favorite Thanksgiving dishes. Don't forget to include dessert!

  • What do you think the Pilgrims ate at the first Thanksgiving?

First Thanksgiving at Plymouth

Image by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

  • Did you know most of the foods served at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner today were not part of the first Thanksgiving?

Like many of the holidays you've learned about, Thanksgiving has changed a lot since it was first celebrated it almost 400 years ago.

Hold on to the list you created in the opening section. In the Got It? section, you will have an opportunity to compare your Thanksgiving feast to the first Thanksgiving dinner!

But for now, let's investigate the history behind the first Thanksgiving. As you learn about the Pilgrims' first year in North America, make a list of all the misconceptions that surround Thanksgiving today.

One of the first misconceptions many Americans have about Thanksgiving is that the Pilgrims celebrated their arrival in the new world with a feast of Thanksgiving. In actuality, the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621, a year after they arrived in North America.

Another myth surrounding the Pilgrims' arrival in North America is that they were the first Englishmen to settle in the New World. Once again, this is not the case, because a group of English settlers had been living in Jamestown, Virginia, since 1607.

Jamestown settlement

The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in September 1620 seeking a land with religious freedom. Unlike the settlers who had arrived at Jamestown years prior, the Pilgrims arrived in the new world equipped with the farming and hunting skills needed to survive.

The problem was that they arrived in September when the season was transitioning into fall, and it was too cold to plant crops.

The winter of 1620 to 1621 was tough for the Pilgrims. Around half of the Pilgrims died from freezing temperatures, starvation, and malnutrition. It looked as though the Plymouth colony would not survive.

Eventually, the Wampanoag, a local Native-American tribe, offered to establish a peace treaty with the Pilgrims. As part of the treaty, the Wampanoag agreed to trade furs and food for English goods.

Squanto, a Wampanoag who had once traveled to Europe and could speak English, offered to stay with the Pilgrims and teach them survival skills. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, where to hunt, and how to survive the freezing winters.

Without his assistance, it is almost certain the Pilgrims would not have survived.

Squanto teaching Pilgrims to plant corn with fish

Image from The German Kali Works, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

The Pilgrims were so happy to have survived their first year in the New World that they decided to celebrate with a huge feast. Many have the idea that the Pilgrims invited their native friends ahead of time to the celebration, but that's not exactly how it happened!

The Pilgrims sent some men out to hunt, and when the Wampanoag heard all the gunshots, they thought there was trouble and came to see what was happening. They learned of the celebration and were then invited to join it.

To learn more about the popular myths surrounding Thanksgiving, watch Thanksgiving Myths Busted, from the American Heroes Channel.

As you watch the video, be sure to add Thanksgiving misconceptions to your list of notes:

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During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress declared one or more days of Thanksgiving per year to celebrate the colonies' successes in the war.

At the conclusion of the war, President Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation, stating that a day was needed for Americans to express their gratitude for the American victory and the conclusion of a long war.

George Washington Thanksgiving proclamation

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

After the Revolutionary War, some states recognized Thanksgiving, but it would be several more years before it became a national holiday.

In 1827, Sara Josepha Hale began a 36-year campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Hale was a magazine editor and the author of the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831

Image by James Reid Lambdin, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

She wrote many letters to newspapers and to the presidents, saying that a day to give thanks was needed. In 1863, President Lincoln finally granted Hale's request by issuing a proclamation that made the last Thursday in November a national holiday called Thanksgiving.

At the time, the United States was in the middle of the Civil War, and President Lincoln felt a day to reflect on gratitude was needed throughout the country.

Abraham Lincoln

Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday in November until 1939, which was the start of the Great Depression.

During the Great Depression, many people lost their income and so of course their spending decreased. Stores asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving forward one week in order to extend the holiday shopping season and, hopefully, increase spending.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

This shift has been referred to as "Franksgiving," blending the names Franklin and Thanksgiving. Many Americans were not happy about this. They said that changing the date of Thanksgiving for consumer purposes went against the purpose of Thanksgiving.

In 1941, however, President Roosevelt signed a law making the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving. It has remained on that date ever since becoming, as expected, the kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

holiday shopping

Today, Thanksgiving remains a national holiday. Most people are given time off work and school. Family and friends gather for a large feast traditionally consisting of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, and pie.

Many people enjoy watching football and parades.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1979

Image by Jon Harder, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Stores begin their holiday shopping season by having some of their biggest sales of the year. Canadians also celebrate their own version of Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October.

Review your list of Thanksgiving myths and misconceptions.

  • Which traditions surprise you?

When you are ready, move on to the Got It? section to compare your list of favorite Thanksgiving foods with the foods served at the first Thanksgiving.

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