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!


Most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with a large feast. Make a list of all your favorite Thanksgiving dishes. Don't forget to include dessert! What did the Pilgrims eat?

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

Thanksgiving has seen a massive transformation since the Pilgrims first celebrated it almost 400 years ago.

If you are missing any of the Related Lessons in this American Holiday series, you can check the right-hand sidebar.

Hold 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.

Today, the traditions and history behind Thanksgiving have been somewhat distorted. 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.

The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in September 1620, seeking a land with religious freedom. Many assume the Pilgrims arrived in America ill-equipped with the skills need to survive, but their problem was in their timing. 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.

The Pilgrims were so happy to have survived their first year in the New World that they decided to celebrate with a huge feast. Today, many assume that the first Thanksgiving was meant to include the Wampanoag, but the Wampanoag were actually some of the first party crashers. They were not actually invited to the feast of celebration, but when they learned of it, they wanted to join in. The celebration was such a success that the Pilgrims decided to make it an annual feast to give thanks for their survival.

To learn more about the popular myths surrounding Thanksgiving, watch Thanksgiving Myths Busted (American Heroes Channel). As you watch the video, be sure to add Thanksgiving misconceptions to your list of notes:


While the Pilgrims intended to celebrate Thanksgiving annually, it has not always been an American tradition.

As the population in the colonies grew, Thanksgiving celebrations became more sporadic. 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. 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, a magazine editor and author, began a 36-year campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She wrote numerous editorials in newspapers and wrote letters to countless 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.

Thanksgiving was celebrated on the last Thursday in November until 1939, the start of the Great Depression, when American spending significantly decreased. Stores requested that President Franklin D. Roosevelt move Thanksgiving forward one week in order to extend the holiday shopping season and, hopefully, increase consumer spending. This shift has been referred to as “Franksgiving," blending the names Franklin and Thanksgiving. Americans met this date change with resistance, saying changing the date of Thanksgiving for consumer purposes went against the purpose of Thanksgiving. In 1941, President Roosevelt signed a law making the fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving, and it has remained on that date ever since.

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. 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 the list of Thanksgiving myths and misconceptions with your teacher or parent. Which traditions surprise you?

When you are finished discussing, 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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