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Sharing the Truth About Thanksgiving with Children

Published by Alfonso Emons

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In 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving to be held each November to commemorate a 1621 harvest celebration between the native Wampanoag people and the English pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation.

Like Columbus Day, controversies exist over whether Thanksgiving is reason for celebration or sorrow. Depending on whose point of view the story is told from, Thanksgiving and the incidents leading up to it may be framed as a dramatic euphemism or an injustice.

What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving?

Plimoth Plantation, a bicultural museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Scholastic created a Virtual Field Trip to Plimoth Plantation to compare and contrast the daily lives of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag as well as to explore the interactions between the peoples leading up to the1621 harvest celebration marked as the first Thanksgiving.

Generations of children have heard the happy tale of cooperation between the Wampanoag people and the English pilgrims. However, the Wampanoag did not uniformly welcome and help the pilgrims. The Wampanoag had experienced unpleasant interactions with earlier English colonists and were wary of the new arrivals. Wampanoag aid to pilgrims came primarily from one man known as Squanto.

The Story of Thanksgiving

Holding a feast of thanksgiving at harvest time has been a tradition of many peoples since the dawn of agriculture, so the First Thanksgiving between the pilgrims and Indians was unlikely to have been a first experience for either group. However, the pilgrims were coming from a city environment to a wilderness one.

The happy tale of the English settlers and the local Natives coming together to celebrate a successful partnership toward a bountiful harvest reflects the hopeful voices of the descendants of the European colonists.

Undoubtedly, some pilgrims did feel grateful for the generosity of the Indians who showed them how to grow and collect food, who brought them food when their stores ran out, and who provided the bulk of the food for their first Thanksgiving feast.

However, the happy tale leaves out unpleasant facts as well as the rhetoric of superiority persistently produced by the pilgrims. This may feel unjustly euphemistic to the collective memories of the Indian descendants.

The Modern Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving topic page at History.com provides another source of information that attempts to provide multiple sides of the history as well as a portrayal of Thanksgiving today. The pilgrims ate lobster, seal, and swan at their 1621 Thanksgiving feast. Today, turkey is the main menu item. History Channel videos include the role of football, pumpkin pie, and the Mayflower in the Thanksgiving story.

The Library of Congress: Thanksgiving website provides a selection of primary sources as well as a Thanksgiving teacher’s guide, President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, and Thanksgiving games children have played.

When sharing controversial historical events with children, we want to present a factually accurate portrayal of the story from as many points of view as possible. In this way, we give an overall balanced perspective to an event that might otherwise present an inaccurate story.

The historical traditions and events that came before the establishment of the U.S. national day of Thanksgiving can be portrayed through can be shared in a factual way while also retaining the positive traditions that have developed into the modern Thanksgiving.

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