How to Explain the Story of Thanksgiving to Kids

By emphasizing friendship and generosity, the story of the first Thanksgiving teaches kids about the importance of fellowship and how it can bind all Americans together.

By Fiona Tapp

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time for families to come together for good food, good company, and good cheer before all the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations begin. Although we often describe Thanksgiving as a time to show gratitude, it’s important to teach kids the history of the holiday as well. Consider this your cheat sheet for telling the story of Thanksgiving to kids while easily including a healthy, crucial dose of history.

The Pilgrims Voyage on the Mayflower

The Thanksgiving story starts in England way back in September 1620, when 102 passengers, called Pilgrims, boarded a ship called the Mayflower. Not quite knowing what they’d find or how hard their journey would be, they sailed across the ocean to start a new life. It took a grueling 66 days at sea to reach their new home in New England.

The Pilgrims landed in Cape Cod in November unprepared for the harsh conditions, and the first winter in America took a toll. Disease and bitterly cold weather kept them on their boat and claimed many lives. Come spring, only half of the original Mayflower passengers were alive.

Building Homes on Native American Land

In the spring, the Pilgrims settled into a village they called Plymouth. However, this land wasn’t uninhabited. Various indigenous tribes of the Wampanoag people, with different complex languages, cultures, and customs, had lived and prospered in this so-called “new world” for at least 10,000 years. Some of the Pilgrims’ first visitors were founding people and custodians of the land, including an Abenaki Indian and a member of the Pawtuxet tribe called Squanto.

The Native Americans bestowed essential survival knowledge to the Pilgrims and taught them how to cultivate the land. This included teaching them which crops grew well, how to avoid dangerous and poisonous plants, and how to extract sap from maple trees. Squanto also introduced the Pilgrims to the Wampanoag people, in an alliance that lasted for more than 50 years.

Without this act of generosity and friendship, the Pilgrims would not have made it through another winter. But with the help of their neighbors, they welcomed a harvest the following fall and celebrated with the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving Feast

In November 1621, the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets came together for a harvest celebration. These were commonplace in both Native American tradition and in European countries long before this “first Thanksgiving.” That year, however, Governor William Bradford organized a three-day event and invited their new indigenous allies, including the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit.

Although their Thanksgiving dinner may have been a little different from what we enjoy today, the same concepts of gratitude and friendship remain. They may not have eaten turkey as we do, as official records only state that wild poultry was served. But they certainly dined on venison as the Wampanoag guests brought with them five deer. They also would have feasted on vegetables gathered from the harvest, including corn made into cornmeal, and a bounty of freshly caught seafood.

Thanksgiving was a regular event afterward to celebrate the harvest. But it wasn’t an official holiday until Abraham Lincoln scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November in 1863 during the middle of the Civil War.

What Can Be Problematic About Thanksgiving

It’s true the first Thanksgiving was one positive interaction between founding people and colonizers, which is why we celebrate friendship and gratitude every November. However, when the Pilgrims came to America, there were countless negative experiences that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Native Americans. For this reason, Thanksgiving also signifies a whitewashing of history and an attempt to deflect from the atrocious harm caused to indigenous groups by European settlers.

“It is important to educate children about cultural appreciation—not cultural appropriation,” says Jennifer Long, member of the Kul Wicasa Oyate and the Executive Director of Native Hope, a nonprofit that helps Native American people heal from historical wounds, problem solve in the community, and inspire hope for the future. “This should be done through factual teachings. When educators are trying to explain Thanksgiving, it is important to remind children that history is often written through the language of the dominant culture. When this occurs, there is always a loss in factual narrative.”

Many Americans still gather near Plymouth each year on Thanksgiving for a National Day of Mourning, established to honor Native ancestors and their struggles. “For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving symbolizes a history of mourning,” Long explains. “Because after the Wampanoag provided generous assistance to the European settlers, many events that followed led to the loss of land and lives for millions of Native People.”

In whatever way you celebrate or commemorate Thanksgiving—as a symbol of friendship, sharing, and gratitude, or a moment to recognize the deep wounds carried by indigenous groups and prevailing effects of colonialism—the story of Thanksgiving should remind kids and adults alike that we have so much more to gain in fellowship than in conflict.

Thanksgiving Story Books For Kids

Want to keep learning? Check out these great children’s books about Thanksgiving that delve into the story in different ways.