Of Pilgrims and Turkey
A Look at Thanksgivings Past and Present

As we take a fresh look at holiday observances in this issue of Social Studies and the Young Learner, we need to remind ourselves of the contributions which related experiences can make to children’s appreciation and understanding of their cultural heritage. Patriotic holidays and those honoring our nation’s leaders deserve a place in the social studies curriculum. While the true meaning of the occasion often is blurred by the flurry of creative activities, these occasions present excellent opportunities to teach the history behind the celebration. Children’s books offer rich resources for students to identify with real people such as Martin Luther King, Jr., veterans, presidents, and Pilgrims, giving students a direct line to the past.

In this column, Dr. Cherryl Sage raises questions and offers resources for students to investigate as they explore the meaning of Thanksgiving.

In preparation for their annual Thanksgiving feast, elementary students make pumpkin pies and fashion stiff, white pilgrim collars out of construction paper. In the bustle of cooking and craft activities, often little thought is given to the celebration at Plimoth Plantation in 1621. Questions about the connections between early thanksgiving celebrations and our modern traditions go unasked. The meaning of key words such as “pilgrim” and “thanksgiving” become lost in a classroom event that is more practical than true-to-life. The goal of this article is to raise questions and provide resources that enable elementary teachers to explore the rich historical context and modern meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday with their students.

Why did the Pilgrims leave England and how did they get to the new world?

The familiar story of the voyage of the Mayflower is told in question-answer format in If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 (McGovern, 1969). In The Pilgrims of Plimoth, Marcia Sewall (1986) retells the story of the Mayflower’s crossing in the language of the times using primary source accounts written by Governor William Bradford. Interesting but frequently unasked questions are addressed by these accounts: How did the Englishmen come to be known as Pilgrims?; Who else sailed with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower?; and How did the travelers pay for their voyage? The color print set Coming to America (National Livestock and Meat Board, 1989) provides additional visuals and background information on the Mayflower and its voyage to the New World.

What did the Pilgrims find at the end of their voyage?

At the end of their voyage the travelers found Cape Cod. What did they do when they first landed? Why didn’t they stay there and what is the significance of Plymouth Rock? These questions are explored in If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 (McGovern, 1969). In Squanto and the First Thanksgiving (Kessel, 1983)
students meet the Indians who helped the Pilgrims through their first winter. Additional questions to explore with these two books include: How did these two Indians learn English?; and Why were there no Indians on the land the Pilgrims chose for their village? In People of the Breaking Day, Marcia Sewall (1990) describes the life of the native people, the Wampanoags, through both a first person narrative and paintings. This book provides an opportunity for students to appreciate the Native American way of life and its contribution to the Pilgrim society. It also encourages students to view the contact between two diverse cultures from multiple perspectives by examining the impact of the Pilgrims on the native population.

What was life like during the early years of the Plymouth Colony?

Accounts of daily life in the Plymouth Colony found in If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 (McGovern, 1969), Pilgrims of Plimouth (Sewall, 1986), and Sarah Morton’s Day (Waters, 1989) answer questions such as: Did the children go to school?; What was the first Christmas like?; and What would it be like to eat and sleep in a Pilgrim home?

What was the first thanksgiving feast like?

The First Thanksgiving Feast (McGovern, 1969) photographed at Plimouth Plantation describes this feast with dialogue based on Governor Bradford’s journal. Answers to questions about authentic food are found in If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620. (McGovern, 1969). Eating the Plates (Penner, 1991) provides both recipes and background material on the eating habits of the Pilgrims.

How did the thanksgiving feast at Plymouth Colony develop into a national holiday?

For the Plymouth colonist, the 1621 day of thanksgiving was celebrated in October during the harvest festival. It was a combination of feasting and religious observance. The Pilgrims held other days of thanksgiving, sometimes with and sometimes without a feast, when they felt particularly blessed by God. In July 1623, the Pilgrims celebrated a day of thanksgiving to give thanks for rain. In early America, religious days of thanksgiving were called by local or regional government officials. However, on several occasions, national days of thanksgiving have been proclaimed by Presidents Washington, Adams, and Monroe. It was not until November 1863 that President Lincoln established an annual national celebration (Anderson, 1984).

What do words like “pilgrim” and “thanksgiving” have to do with life in the twentieth century?

Thanksgiving is more than a time to remember the Mayflower pilgrims who settled in America. Pilgrims, those who make a long trip for religious reasons, still exist. Molly’s Pilgrim (Cohen, 1983), the story of a Jewish family’s escape from Russia to avoid religious persecution, and How Many Days to America (Bunting, 1988), the story of a Caribbean family’s flight to avoid political persecution, add depth to the concept of “pilgrim.” These two books can enrich our understanding of “pilgrims” and “thanksgiving.” Resources which address the questions above encourage continued learning about the first thanksgiving and its significance for us today.

Anderson, J. (1984). The first Thanksgiving feast. New York: Clarion.
Bunting, E. (1988). How many days to America: A Thanksgiving story. New York: Clarion.
Cohen, B. (1983). Molly’s Pilgrim. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shephard.
National Livestock and Meat Board. (1989). Coming to America [prints]. Chicago.
Kessel, J. (1983). Squanto and the first Thanksgiving. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda.
McGovern, A. (1969). If you sailed on the Mayflower in 1620. New York: Scholastic.
Penner, L. (1991). Eating the plates: A Pilgrim book of food and manners. New York: Macmillan.
Sewall, M. (1990). People of the breaking day. New York: Atheneum.
Sewall, M. (1986). The Pilgrims of Plimoth. New York: Atheneum.
Waters, K. (1989). Sarah Morton’s day. New York: Scholastic.

About the Author
Dr. Cherryl Sage, a past member of the Notable Books Social Studies Committee, is an assistant principal on leave from the Howard County (MD) Public Schools who is currently living in Harrogate, England.