The Top Ten Things Kids Should Know About Thanksgiving
Each November schoolchildren across America come home with a variety of traditional crafts to decorate the kitchen refrigerator: the construction paper headband with colorful feathers, the paper bag vest with fringe, the black paper hat with the white buckle, and the keepsake handprint turkey. Often classrooms host a feast in which children contribute a variety of foods from fruits and vegetables to popcorn, or invite proud parents to take pictures during the “Pilgrims and Indians” school play. All of these activities provide warm, happy memories, but may leave children without a basic knowledge of the facts of the season. Here are the top ten things kids should know about Thanksgiving:
1. The Background: A group of English citizens wanted to practice their religion separately from the official church of the king of England. They sought asylum originally in Holland, then in the New World. On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from England’s southern coast across the North Atlantic Ocean. It would be 66 days until land was sighted. During the stormy trip one man died and a baby was born.
2. The Mayflower: The famous wooden sailing ship was approximately 90 feet long and 26 feet wide. It was actually a cargo ship, more accustomed to carrying wine than people. The ship was quite crowded because a second ship planned for the journey, the Speedwell, was leaky and had to return to shore. Captain Christopher Jones oversaw approximately 30 crewmen. Only about 35 of the 102 passengers were seeking religious freedom; many of the others were seeking employment in a new world that they could not find at home in England.
3. The Location: The Mayflower first landed in Cape Cod, the modern day city of Provincetown, Massachusetts. The passengers remained on the ship and penned the Mayflower Compact, a forerunner of the Constitution, which outlined fair laws and citizen chosen leadership. It was not until some time later that the Mayflower set sail in search of a more suitable location and arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, probably at Plymouth Rock because it was the only good landing place along two and a half miles of sandy beach. Plymouth was an excellent location to settle because it was actually the site of the Native American village of Pawtuxet. The Wampanoag tribe that had once inhabited the area of running brooks and cleared farmlands had been almost entirely wiped out by disease a few years before the arrival of the English settlers.
4. The Date: The Mayflower anchored at Plymouth on December 16, 1620. More than half of the settlers died over the winter. With the help of the Native Americans, they planted crops and enjoyed a fairly bountiful harvest. The corn harvest was especially impressive because of a surviving member of the Wampanoag named Squanto had taught the Pilgrims the best way to plant and fertilize corn. The actual feast was held somewhere between September 21 and November 11, 1621, most likely mid October. The celebration lasted for three whole days!
5. The Preparation: The Pilgrims were very traditional in their family roles. The women and girls prepared all of the meal themselves, cooking primarily outdoors.
6. The Menu: The first Thanksgiving meal may have contained some wild turkey, but no cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie. More likely dishes were vegetables from the Pilgrim’s gardens such as carrots, cucumbers, turnips, onions, radishes, beets, and cabbage. Also likely to have appeared at this feast were wild geese and duck. The settlers had no sugar, so dessert probably consisted of berries as well as fresh and dried fruit such as strawberries, plums, and cherries. Lobsters, eels, clams, oysters, and fresh fish were also probably at the celebration being that the settlement was near the coast. Venison was the main course; the Native Americans contributed five deer. Rather than a formal sit down dinner, the feast of 1621 was more like a continuous buffet eaten primarily using one’s fingers.
7. The Guests: Attending the harvest celebration were approximately 50 English settlers under the leadership of the colony’s governor William Bradford. About ninety Native American men of the Wampanoag tribe under leadership of Chief Massasoit later arrived.
8. The Attire: The weather was chilly in October in New England, so the Wampanoag were probably fully dressed rather than dining in just their loincloths. The Native American guests did not wear feathered headdresses. Those were worn by the Plains Indians. The Pilgrim men wore long sleeved shirts and pants of varying colors with jackets, woolen stockings and stocking caps. Buckles had not yet come into use. Pilgrim women and girls wore colorful long dresses. Black and white was reserved for Sundays.
9. The Festivities: The first Thanksgiving was a harvest festival celebrating the abundance of food. It involved not only feasting, but also singing, dancing, and playing games. The boys and men practiced target shooting with English muskets, while the Wampanoag males shot bows and arrows. There were athletic competitions such as hand wresting and racing. Although there was no Thanksgiving football game to watch back then, the first Thanksgiving attendees did play a croquet like game called “stool ball” using a leather ball filled with feathers.
10. The National Holiday: Thanksgiving was not made an official national holiday until 1863 when a popular ladies magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale successfully convinced Abraham Lincoln to do so. Our sixteenth president thought such a holiday of giving thanks would be a good way to unite our nation.
Author of the “Miss Trimble’s Trapdoor” children’s book series