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Thanksgiving dinner

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Almost all of us remember tracing our hands to make colorful construction paper turkeys, acting out the first Thanksgiving, and reading about Pilgrims during our November school days. What we may not remember is that the story of the first Thanksgiving that we learned in grade school was often incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading and probably missed some of the more interesting historical details about this important national holiday. Fortunately, there are a variety of primary sources and lesson plans available on the Web that can help you and your students celebrate our national day of thanksgiving in ways that are both fun and informative.

Common historical inaccuracies

Learning activities surrounding Thanksgiving need, above all, to be historically accurate. In order to understand the first Thanksgiving, students need to have a good sense of its historical context — the religious beliefs of the Pilgrims, the culture of the Wampanoag people who lived in the Plymouth area before European colonization, the foods and cultural practices at the first Thanksgiving feast, and the ways in which the relationships between colonists and Native Americans evolved after 1621.

The Pilgrims

Students often rely on myths to understand the Pilgrims, seeing them only as strange men in black hats and women in white aprons. The following resources can help your students understand the Pilgrims in more sophisticated ways.

  • The Pilgrims as People. This piece from Plimoth Plantation provides detailed information on the colonists, their religious beliefs, their secular culture, their reasons for crossing the Atlantic, and the Mayflower Compact.
  • Colonists and the Colony. For more information about the colony as a whole, visit this website from Plimoth Plantation. It provides information on sewing in the colony, detailed lists of colonists based on primary documents, and a timeline showing the colony’s history from 1620 to 1692.
  • Plymouth Colony Clothing. This detailed page shows accurate representations of the kinds of clothing Pilgrims wore — students may be interested to see that the stereotypical black hats and white collars are not the whole story of Pilgrim attire!

The Wampanoag

Historical inaccuracies in Thanksgiving stories, decorations, and other resources often also reflect a lack of knowledge about the native people who lived near Plymouth at the time of the colony’s founding. The Wampanoag people did not have access to horses, did not use teepees, and did not wear elaborate feathered headdresses, yet these features often show up on the sets of Thanksgiving plays or in children’s art projects surrounding the holiday. The following resources can help you and your students learn more about the Wampanoag.

American Indians in general

Arts and crafts projects with Native American themes sometimes reinforce incorrect historical information about native people and, at worst, may appear disrespectful. When students create inaccurate construction paper imitations of objects and attire that are spiritually and culturally significant, it can send a message that those spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions are not taken seriously and can undermine respect for native religions and skilled crafts. The following articles can be helpful in thinking about how you might teach the history and culture of Native Americans in ways that are respectful and accurate:

The harvest feast

The shared feast between Pilgrims and native people in 1621 forms the central story of our Thanksgiving holiday, but students often misunderstand the significance of the event to the participants, or make incorrect assumptions about the foods that would have been available and traditional at the time. The following websites provide interesting historical insights into the first Thanksgiving.

  • Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth. This PDF file from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. provides a brief but detailed and accurate account of the first Thanksgiving, along with a map, study questions, and a recipe for johnnycakes that could be used as part of a classroom Thanksgiving event.
  • You Are the Historian: Investigating the First Thanksgiving. This interactive multimedia resource from Plimoth plantation allows students to explore the first Thanksgiving from both Pilgrim and Wampanoag perspectives using letters, diary entries, archaeological evidence, and other primary sources. In many cases, sources are read aloud to allow students to listen while they read.
  • Educational Articles about the First Thanksgiving from Plimoth Plantation. Learn about the Pilgrim tradition of holding days of thanks giving and praise, the 1621 Thanksgiving feast, native ways of giving thanks, and the history of our Thanksgiving holiday here.
  • The First Thanksgiving. This website from the Campbell County School District in Wyoming separates fact from fiction in regards to the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621.
  • Common Foods. This webpage explains some of the foods that would have been common in the New England diet in 1621, and why some Thanksgiving favorites like pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes may not have been possible at that first feast.
  • Recipes from Plimoth Plantation. Recipes to help your classroom Thanksgiving feast be both tasty and historically accurate.

Relations between colonists and native people

Having heard about the peaceful Thanksgiving meal, students often think that relations between colonists and native people were, on the whole, very fair and friendly and that the first Thanksgiving ushered in a period of peace and good relations that lasted indefinitely. In reality, of course, the story of relations between Europeans and Native Americans is not so rosy and students must understand the role of European disease, unkept promises, cultural conflict, and disputes over land and resources in defining long-term relationships between Europeans and American Indians. As the “Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the First Thanksgiving” article from the Museum of the American Indian makes clear, the relative peace between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag began to deteriorate as early as the 1660s, resulting in war by 1675. While it is important for students to celebrate the period of peace and mutual aid, they must also understand that the first Thanksgiving story is but one small piece of the long and often tragic history of relations between native people and European colonists.

Common misperceptions about the holiday itself

There’s a tendency to think that after the famous First Thanksgiving, Americans celebrated the holiday every year from then on, but while communities often held feasts and celebrations to give thanks for their good fortune or a bountiful harvest, the annual holiday was not created until Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863 creating a national day of thanksgiving. In the years afterward, presidents announced a national day of Thanksgiving each year on the last Thursday of November, following Lincoln’s tradition and urging American families and communities to celebrate together. In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt fixed the date of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November instead of the last Thursday in November in order to allow for a longer Christmas shopping season to spur economic growth during the Great Depression, and in 1941 Congress formalized the date change to make the fourth Thursday of November our permanent holiday.

You and your students can read presidential Thanksgiving proclamations and learn more about how Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving over the years in these resources.

Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation
The text of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, which established the tradition of celebrating the holiday. Provided by the Classical Library.
Franklin Roosevelt’s 1939 Thanksgiving Proclamation
The American Presidency Project provides the text of Roosevelt’s 1939 Proclamation.
The FDR presidential library article “The Year We Had Two Thanksgivings” explains why the 1939 Thanksgiving was controversial, and provides images of letters and telegrams from American citizens about the holiday.
Looking into Holidays Past through Primary Sources
This unique resource from American Memory allows students to explore primary documents, images, audio recordings, and films from holidays in each of the four seasons. The fall section includes numerous resources on Thanksgiving, and a printable PDF “graphic organizer” file provides a ready-made handout that will allow your students keep track of what they observe, what they think they know, and what they want to find out as they explore these sources.

Teaching about Thanksgiving outside the boundaries of United States colonial history

Colonial United States history makes up only a small part of the social studies curriculum, but students of all ages are interested in the holiday and may be motivated by lesson plans that incorporate it. Instead of teaching about Thanksgiving in a supplemental way, why not incorporate it into what you are already teaching at this time of year? Use the holiday as an opportunity to study American culture at a particular time by looking at holiday traditions, or to ask some interesting questions about giving thanks in general. For example:

Compare harvest and thanks-giving festivals around the world.

If your curriculum focuses on non-United States history and culture, focus on the ways in which the people you are studying gave (or give) thanks. Many world cultures have harvest festivals, special holidays set aside to give thanks for prosperity, or holidays that center on a feast and family togetherness. Visit Harvest Celebrations from FamilyCulture and explore the links on the right side of the page to festivals from around the world and draw parallels between these holidays and American Thanksgiving.

Compare the idea of thanks in various cultures.

If you are learning about a non-English-speaking culture, learn how to say “thank you” in that culture’s native language. (This website will help you learn to say "thank you" in over 400 languages!) Talk about the customs and manners surrounding thankfulness among the people you are studying. How do people convey their thanks to others? How does the thanked person respond? Does their culture include the concept of a thank-you letter, card, or gift? (This website from the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle provides detailed information on the gift-giving and thank-you customs of a variety of cultures.) What are the traditions surrounding giving thanks to higher powers in this culture? Do people offer prayers, sing songs, make offerings, or hold festivals to thank their deity or deities for their good fortune?

Understand American Thanksgiving traditions over time.

If, by late November, you have long since moved beyond Plymouth and are studying the Civil War, industrialization, the roaring 20s, World War II, or the 1970s, why not take a look at how Thanksgiving was celebrated during that period? The American Memory collection from the Library of Congress offers numerous images and other primary documents that shed light on Thanksgiving throughout modern American history. Visit the homepage and search for “Thanksgiving” and you should find a wide range of resources to choose from. Students might compare Thanksgiving at their home to the Thanksgiving dinner celebrated on the Minnesota frontier in the mid nineteenth century, the Thanksgiving dinner for World War I soldiers described by the November 22, 1918, Stars and Stripes (enter the date, or search for “Thanksgiving” and follow the first link in the results), or the Thanksgiving experience for families around the country during the Great Depression (search for “Thanksgiving” in this American Memory collection). You might also have students evaluate the time period you are studying in terms of what various groups of people at the time might have been thankful for, and what they might have wished for in the coming year.

Thanksgiving is a fun and festive holiday that presents a great opportunity to delve deeply into American history, Native American culture, foodways, primary sources, and more. This Thanksgiving, teachers can be thankful that the Internet has provided so many rich and useful resources for creating engaging and historically accurate activities for their students!

Additional resources

  • U.S. Census Bureau’s Facts for Features. Check this year’s Thanksgiving facts and figures for interesting statistical details about Thanksgiving foods, their production, and their cost, as well as information about communities named after Plymouth and other Thanksgiving trivia.
  • Teaching About Thanksgiving. This file from the Fourth World Documentation Project Archive at the Center for World Indigenous Studies provides helpful information about some of the myths of Thanksgiving, as well as a native perspective on the ways in which Thanksgiving is often taught. Some questions have been raised about the accuracy of a few historical details in the Lesson Plan portion of this resource so some caution may be warranted, but the introduction and many of the ideas contained within are of tremendous value to educators regardless. Note: To access the file, visit the North, South, and Central American documents page on the CWIS website, and find “Teaching About Thanksgiving” in the United States list. A log-in is needed.