Thanksgiving Background Information for Teachers and Parents

Grade Levels: K-3

This page contains information to support educators and families in teaching K-3 students about the history and customs of the Thanksgiving holiday. The information is designed to complement the BrainPOP Jr. movie Thanksgiving. It explains the type of content covered in the movie, provides ideas for how teachers and parents can develop related understandings, and suggests how other BrainPOP Jr. resources can be used to scaffold and extend student learning.

In the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Many Americans believe that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people shared a three-day feast together. Actually, the Pilgrims did not view this as a Thanksgiving celebration, but more as a celebration of the harvest and a token of appreciation. The Wampanoag played a pivotal role in the Pilgrims’ survival of their first winter in the New World. Thanksgiving did not become an official American holiday until the time of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln thought it was a way to bring people together. We recommend watching the Abe Lincoln movie together as a review for more info on this president.

The term pilgrim refers to a person who travels for a religious purpose. The Pilgrims we associate with Thanksgiving were a group of people who lived in England in the late 1500s. They were a deeply religious group and struggled with the pagan traditions and beliefs of sixteenth-century England. The Pilgrims wanted more religious freedom and moved to Holland. Later a group of Pilgrims decided to start a colony in the New World. There they thought they could live life as they saw fit. There was already a successful colony in Virginia, and in 1620 a group of 102 Pilgrims set out on theMayflower and sailed to the New World.

Storms caused the ship to go off course and the Mayflower was unable to reach anywhere near the colony in Virginia. Instead they landed in what is known today as Massachusetts, in a town they called Plymouth. The Pilgrims arrived cold and sick; many members of their group did not survive the voyage. There were abandoned Native American settlements and burial grounds in the area and several Pilgrims tried to scavenge for food and supplies.

Native Americans had lived in the area for hundreds of years. Squanto was a member of the Patuxet tribe, part of the Wamapanoag Confederacy. When previous European settlers came to the area, he and many of his people were kidnapped and forced into slavery. For nine years, Squanto was enslaved in England, where he learned English. When he returned to his homeland in 1614, he and other Native Americans were kidnapped again and sent to Spain. Friars saved a few of the Native Americans and converted them to Christianity. Squanto finally returned home again in 1619 only to discover that most of his tribe and other tribes in the area had died of smallpox, a disease European settlers had brought with them to the New World.

When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they were not prepared for the coming winter. Eventually, Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive by teaching them where to fish and hunt and how to raise crops. The Pilgrims accepted Squanto because of his ability to speak English. Squanto’s motive to help these European settlers still remains unclear and some historians believe he acted out of self-interest and caused strife within his tribe. Though the facts remain unclear, Squanto’s story embodies the Thanksgiving spirit. Your children should understand that Squanto helped the Pilgrims even though he had been enslaved by Europeans and taken from his homeland.

After the first harvest, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag shared a three-day feast together. Historians are not sure what was served at this feast, but they do know what food was available to the people, including deer, seal, lobster, fish, wild turkey, corn, pumpkin, cabbage, and root vegetables such as parsnips, radishes, and carrots. Foods that many people traditionally associate with Thanksgiving, such as pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes were not served at the first harvest celebration.

Discuss Thanksgiving with your children. What has changed since the Pilgrims first arrived in 1620? What traditions are largely the same? Encourage your children to think about the meaning of Thanksgiving. What are they thankful for?