Thanksgiving began centuries years ago when a group of colonists and Native Americans got together to celebrate the harvest. What does this have to do with you as a homeschooling parent? Well, Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity to make interesting history come alive for your kids. Who wants to learn history out of a boring old textbook anyway?

Take some time during the week before Thanksgiving to learn how the holiday came about and why we celebrate it year after year. I think you’ll be surprised how you can incorporate it into your school week, or even into Thanksgiving Day itself!

The History

  • Thanksgiving began with a group of colonists — or as we call them, the Pilgrims — who gathered together for a three-day feast. It was the fall of 1621, and they were celebrating a bountiful harvest after a long winter of hardship and disease and first year in the “New World,” along with Native Americans from the surrounding area. This three-day feast eventually turned into the holiday we celebrate every year.
  • Author Sarah Josepha Hale is called the “Mother of Thanksgiving.” Why? She petitioned to have Thanksgiving set as an annual holiday. Even though previous presidents, starting with George Washington, had been calling for a national day of thanks, she wanted it to be a fixed holiday that would happen year after year. After many years of pushing for the holiday, in 1863 she got her wish. In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln called for an annual celebration to happen on the last Thursday in November. The tradition obviously stuck.
  • No potatoes? That’s right, the first Thanksgiving didn’t have the now much-loved dish of mashed potatoes. Potatoes had just been introduced to Europe in 1570 and wouldn’t have been popular enough to make it onto the Mayflower and to America. But instead of potatoes, they had plenty of other food. A good harvest year provided them with a variety of fruits and vegetables, including corn, which they ate as cornmeal boiled into a mush. Fun fact: historians believe that seafood made an appearance at that first Thanksgiving. Plymouth Plantation’s proximity to the shore put seafood within easy reach.

Activities to Celebrate the Holiday

Now that you know the history, how can you incorporate this into your Thanksgiving Day? Here are some ideas that are both fun and educational!

  • Writing and history often go hand-in-hand. Giving your kids the option to write a short story about that first Thanksgiving Day can help them imagine what it was like. What was the weather like? What did the food taste like? What were the people’s feelings? They can put themselves into the story, and history stops being a long list of facts and dates and starts to become reality.
  • Have them use crayons or colored pencils to illustrate their story and turn it into a book that they can pass around at your family’s Thanksgiving get-together.
  • Reading a book is just as good, if not better, than making your own. Take a look at this list of beautiful picture and chapter books that authors have written about the history of Thanksgiving as well as on giving thanks.
  • What about eating some of the food they ate at the first Thanksgiving? Take your history lesson into the kitchen and make some of the dishes that could have graced that first Thanksgiving table. Try this Sweet Indian Corn Pudding Recipe or these Stewed Pumpkins.

History certainly doesn’t have to be boring, and Thanksgiving is the perfect day to teach it because it’s full of history lessons. There are plenty of activities you can do on Thanksgiving to help your kids engage with history in fun and new ways. Be creative, let your kids’ imaginations take off and, as always, have fun.

What are your favorite ways to incorporate history into the school day?