Facts about the First Thanksgiving for Kids

When you think of Thanksgiving, you probably think about Thanksgiving dinner full of traditional foods like pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, turkey, and sweet potatoes. You probably never really think about the history of the holiday. So what was the first thanksgiving really like? 

First Thanksgiving Facts

If you can believe it, the first “Thanksgiving” may have happened long before the Pilgrims celebrated with the Native Americans. But, the event we all know as the first Thanksgiving was celebrated over 400 years ago. Here is some first Thanksgiving feast information.

Thanksgiving History 

In September of 1620, a ship called the Mayflower left England looking for religious freedom. They wanted to practice their faith freely and heard of prosperity and land ownership in this new land. 

When they finally reached North America after 66 days at sea, the settlers landed on the tip of Cape Cod. They then crossed the Massachusetts Bay, where they began to build the Plymouth colony and start their new life. The area where it is believed the pilgrims landed is a tourist attraction visited by many each year called Plymouth Rock. 

The first winter was harsh. Many European settlers stayed on the ship and dealt with exposure to the elements like snow and ice. They contracted or got sick with scurvy and other contagious diseases. Half of the ship’s passengers and crew did not live to see Spring. The new world was not easy.

In spring, the remaining pilgrims moved ashore, and a member of the Abenaki tribe visited them. A few days later, he brought another Native American named Squanto. He taught them how to plant corn, gather sap from the maple trees, catch fish, and avoid poisonous plants.

Besides helping them survive, he also helped them ally with a nearby tribe, the Wampanoag people. This alliance would last more than 50 years! 

First Thanksgiving Feast

After the first corn harvest was successful in November of 1621, Governor William Bradford wanted to celebrate. He decided to throw a harvest celebration and invited a group of the Wampanoag tribe and their chief Massasoit. 

The Thanksgiving celebration lasted for three days. No one knows the exact menu. However, some historical documents suggest there were wild turkeys and deer. It is written that the English settlers also played games and entertained the Wampanoag tribe in many ways.

 It is believed the food was prepared and cooked using traditional native people’s spices and cooking methods because the settlers did not have the resources. This three-day event would become known as the first Thanksgiving celebration. 

Other Thanksgiving Stories

Although the thanksgiving story above is the history many of us know. There are many other thanksgiving stories in history. 

Some scholars argue that the pilgrim’s celebration was really the “first thanksgiving.” In 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited members of the Timucua tribe for dinner in St. Augustine, Florida after a mass thanking God for their safe arrival. In 1619 when British settlers knowns as the Berkeley Hundred landed in Virginia, they read a proclamation or announcement designating that date the “day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”  

Native Americans also argue that the story of Thanksgiving taught to children in school paints a bad picture. Not all Native American tribes and settlers had a friendly and helpful relationship. There were many conflicts between Native Americans and European settlers, and tens of thousands died during these battles and wars. 

In ancient times, the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians feasted and praised their gods after the fall harvest. Thanksgiving is similar to the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. Also, long before the Native Americans celebrated with English settlers, they had a tradition where they feasted and celebrated after the fall harvest.

Thanksgiving, a National Holiday

In 1789, President George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation after the American Revolution. He wanted Americans to show gratitude (thankfulness) for the war’s successful conclusion. John Adams and James Madison did similar things. Some states recognized this holiday, but others did not. 

In 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale launched a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. It took her a very long time to make this happen (36 years). She published editorials and wrote to many governors, senators, and presidents. Sarah Josepha Hale was nicknamed the “Mother of Thanksgiving” because of her hard work. 

In 1863 during the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln decided to accept Sarah Josepha Hale’s requisition and made Thanksgiving as a national holiday a reality. President Lincoln proclaimed the holiday would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. 

Modern Thanksgiving Celebration

The modern Thanksgiving celebration has lost most of its religious importance and is more focused on cooking and celebrating a large meal with family and friends. Although, historians are still unsure if they served turkey at the first celebration. In the United States of America, 90% of the people who celebrate Thanksgiving eat turkey. Other traditional foods are stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and apple pie. 

Many people volunteer on Thanksgiving. Communities hold food drives and host free dinners for those less fortunate. It is a great opportunity to help your community on a day with a lot of history focused on thankfulness. 

Parades have also become a part of the holiday. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade started in 1924 and is the largest and most famous parade. 2 to 3 million people go to New York City to watch the parade. The parade route is about 2.5 miles long and is televised or on tv. 

The next most watched event on tv is football. Football games have been played on Thanksgiving Day since 1876, shortly after the game was invented. College football started the tradition and the IV League schools Yale and Princeton began the tradition. 

Starting in the 20th century, the United States president “pardoned” or forgave one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year. Being pardoned means those turkeys would not be eaten at a Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, these turkeys are sent to a farm for retirement. Many U.S. governors also pardon turkeys in their states as well.

Black Friday is a popular shopping day after Thanksgiving and is part of a couple of different shopping days that are considered the beginning of the holiday season. The three main shopping days are Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Small Business Saturday. There is also a day called Giving Tuesday, which happens the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Giving Tuesday is when people are encouraged to donate to charitable causes or volunteer in their community. 

Thanksgiving Fun Facts

Here are some fun facts about Thanksgiving you might not have known!

  • The day after Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year for plumbers. Gross!
  • The Butterball turkey hotline answers 100,000 turkey-related questions every year.
  • There is a national turkey federation in the United States.
  • “Jingle Bells” was originally a Thanksgiving song.
  • Minnesota raises the most turkeys in the U.S.
  • Thanksgiving is a time to be with your family and enjoy good food, parades, and football!