Monday, November 1

The History Behind Thanksgiving Traditions - Unit Study

Thanksgiving is a time for family, friends, food, and tradition. People gather with family and friends on the fourth Thursday in November to enjoy a traditional meal and to give thanks for life’s many blessings.  But where did this holiday originate?

Pilgrims & Indians

We all know the story of the Mayflower and the First Thanksgiving - held 400 years ago this year - and the relationship that developed between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indian tribe.  It had been a long year since the ship arrived in 1620, and the colony was very grateful to be doing so well with the help of Massasoit and his people.  Read more about the First Thanksgiving here.

Prior to the colonists arrival, the Native Americans already had a tradition of celebrating the fall harvest.  Thanksgiving falls under a category of festivals that spans cultures, continents and millennia. In ancient times, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans feasted and paid tribute to their gods after the fall harvest.  Thanksgiving also bears a resemblance to the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot.

As the colonies grew, colonists continued to give thanks with the autumn harvests.  No official holiday was declared, however, until Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to be held in 1863, at the height of the Civil War.  He asked all Americans to have God “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” 

A Holiday is Born

From 1863 to 1939, the holiday was held on the last Thursday in November.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up by one week that year, in an attempt to boost the economy with holiday shopping, and in 1941 he officially made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.  This officially gave most people a four-day break from school and work!

Turkey & Pumpkin Pie

Did you know that lobster, seal, and swans were served at the first Thanksgiving?  Historians believe that many of the foods were prepared in the Native American way because the Pilgrims did not have an oven.  Turkey may or may not have been served back in 1621, but we know that they didn't have many of the tasty desserts from today, because they had no sugar!

In many American households today, the holiday centers on cooking and sharing a bountiful meal with family and friends.  Turkey, corn, pumpkins, squash, nuts, and cranberry sauce are foods that represent the first Thanksgiving. 

Beginning in the mid-1900s, the president has “pardoned” a Thanksgiving turkey each year, sparing it from slaughter and sending it to a farm for retirement. A number of U.S. governors also perform the annual turkey pardoning ritual.

Holiday Activities

Volunteering is a common Thanksgiving Day activity.  In the spirit of giving, many communities hold food drives and host free dinners for the less fortunate.  Many families host a Thanksgiving meal, complete with gratitude activities around the table. 

Parades have also become a big part of the day in cities and towns across the United States.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924, and today New York City’s parade - with its performers, floats, and marching bands - is the largest and most famous, attracting millions of spectators along its 2.5-mile route, as well as an enormous television audience.

Our spine reads for this unit are:

Access the entire unit in the History Behind Our Holidays unit study bundle!

Includes eight American holidays. Each unit has introductory text, which will give the student the holiday’s history and customs.

  •  Introduction
  •  Valentine’s Day
  •  St. Patrick’s Day
  •  Easter
  •  Mother’s Day
  •  Father’s Day
  •  Halloween
  •  Thanksgiving
  •  Christmas

In addition to text, there are featured videos, which augment the background information and help make the topic more accessible for more visual students. You will also find a short list of reading books and fun hands-on activities!

Product Samples:   Valentine's Day & Christmas Traditions

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