Did you know that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first Thanksgiving in 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, in the hopes of giving the country something it could unite over?

Thanksgiving has traditionally been a time for celebration and thankfulness. When we recall the unlikely circumstances which led to the first celebratory feast which became known as Thanksgiving, we are reminded about the power of staying thankful for the things you do have, rather than fixating on the things you don’t. 

This Thanksgiving lesson plan teaches students about the origins of Thanksgiving and includes multiple fun activities about finding gratitude in our circumstances. To begin using and customizing this lesson, create a Gynzy account today. This will give you complete access to all the standards-aligned lesson plans which you can find on the Gynzy Library!

The History of Thanksgiving

The feast we think of as Thanksgiving occurred between the Wampanoag Native Americans, who first settled in Massachusetts and Rhode Island over 15,000 years ago, and the Pilgrims, who left the New World on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom.

As a result of the long journey, delays in landing at Plymouth Harbor, unforgiving winter conditions, disease, and a lack of food, only 53 Pilgrims survived the first year at Plymouth. Eventually, the Pilgrims came into contact with a member of the Wampanoag tribe who was named Tisquantum, more commonly known as Squanto.

With the help of Tisquantum and broad support from the Wampanoag people, the Pilgrims learned to overcome the elements, gather food, and survive in their new environment. Their relationship was formally recognized in March 1621 with the signing of the Wampanoag-Pilgrim treaty, which mandated peace and mutually assured defense between the parties. 

In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with the Wampanoag people in what was originally a three-day celebration. Though the meal likely featured seafood and fowl or deer instead of turkey, it was nonetheless a celebration of perseverance and cooperation from which we can still learn lessons today. 

Activities in This Lesson

To begin this lesson, students are asked to reflect on some of their family’s favorite traditions. This is a great opportunity for class discussion about the diversity that we naturally have in our families and in our family traditions, particularly around the holidays. 

At the close of the lesson, students are asked to reflect on who the participants of the first “Thanksgiving” feast were, and also think about some of the differences between that original celebration and the holiday we know today. 

The closing activity is a journal entry prompt asking students what they are grateful for. A second question asks how Thanksgiving might look 300 years from now. Both of these questions can serve as fun discussion prompts for the class, whether it takes place in-person or online.

We hope this lesson helps you and your students enjoy this Thanksgiving and also learn a bit more about the origins of it. We also hope you are able to find thankfulness and joy this holiday despite this difficult time we are living through.