I'd stuffed many a turkey before I really understood Thanksgiving. Oh sure, I knew we were supposed to be thankful, and once I became a Christian I knew who we were thanking. But it wasn't until I homeschooled some of my children that I really discovered the whole story. Unfortunately, that story keeps getting harder to find.
For years, public schools have left God out of Thanksgiving, teaching instead that the Pilgrims gave a party to thank the Native Americans and Mother Earth. Even more current are claims that the first Thanksgiving was a copy of European harvest festivals, a stolen Native American custom, or just a repetition of thanksgivings offered by other explorers.
But the Pilgrims' own writings and the historical events leading to the first Thanksgiving show the traditional accounts (available in pre-1960 books and encyclopedias) to be authentic. Thanksgiving was not an isolated event, or an imitation of some other event, but a uniquely inspired Christian celebration?the culmination of a long journey of faith during which the Pilgrims relied on God and trusted him through tremendous adversity.
While Thanksgiving often gets lost in the pre-Christmas shuffle, teaching our children the real story of this holiday can make it an opportunity for spiritual growth that our children will cherish for years to come. With a little history, a little creativity, and a sense of fun, Thanksgiving can become one of your family's favorite celebrations.
Tell The Real Story
The Thanksgiving story is more than just the tale of Pilgrims and Indians. It's a portrait of God's hand in bringing people together to accomplish a specific purpose. As you share this story with your children, encourage them to listen for the ways God helped the Pilgrims and guided them through difficult times.
In the early 1600s the Wampanoag (Wam-pa-NO-ag) Indians inhabited the coast of what we now call New England. They raised crops, lived close to the ocean in summer for seafood, and moved inland in winter to set up hunting camps. Their encounters with Europeans over the years were mostly friendly.
But there was one exception: In 1614 Captain Thomas Hunt captured several Wampanoag, along with a Patuxet Indian named Squanto, to be sold into slavery in Spain. A Spanish monk purchased Squanto's freedom, taught him Spanish, introduced him to Jesus Christ and sent him to England. In 1619, Squanto returned to his native land, only to find that his tribe had been wiped out by an epidemic. Thereafter he made his home with the Wampanoag.
Meanwhile, in 1608, a British group called Separatists fled to Leyden, Holland. There they found religious freedom, but also poverty, grueling work hours, and a secular culture that threatened to undo the values they had carefully instilled in their children. In 1620, they sold all their belongings to help finance their journey to America.
On the Mayflower's voyage, the Separatists were joined by another group of people bound for America. They called these people Strangers. The two groups, 102 people altogether, were called Pilgrims.
Their journey lasted nine weeks. In one of those divine "accidents" that change the course of history, the ship lost its course and landed far north of its destination at what we now know as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Once outside the territory covered by the King's Charter, the Pilgrims became responsible for their own government, and so they wrote a set of laws called The Mayflower Compact. On December 21, 1620, they began their new life at the place they named Plymouth.
The winter was devastating. Wind whipped through their settlement and sleet and snow chilled them to the bone. Half of the Pilgrims died. But the Separatists clung to their faith; not one person chose to return to England when the Mayflower made her return voyage.
Spring brought unexpected relief?the help of a Christian brother, Squanto. He taught them how to grow corn, use fertilizer, stalk deer, and catch fish. William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, wrote that Squanto was "a special instrument sent of God for good beyond our expectations."
And so their first harvest was good. Governor Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to God, and the Pilgrims invited their Indian friends. Chief Massasoit and 90 members of his tribe came, along with Squanto, bearing venison and wild turkeys for everyone to share. The Pilgrims and Indians feasted, played games, ran races, and showed their prowess with bows and arrows and muskets. With so much to be grateful for, the Pilgrims celebrated that first Thanksgiving for three days!
Make Every Day Thanksgiving
The first Thanksgiving was a joyful celebration?and so much more. Though the Pilgrims had much to be thankful for?the shelters they'd built, the successful harvest, their good relations with the Native Americans?they were still grieving the loss of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and children. Their story reminds us that this season is about more than giving thanks. It's about giving thanks in all circumstances. Making time each Thanksgiving to remember how the Pilgrims celebrated God's goodness and providence challenges us to do the same each day.
Barbara Curtis is a former teacher and the mother of 12. She and her family live in California.
Read About It
I found information in the following books. Any of them would make a wonderful edition to the family library.
Pilgrim Boy by Matilda Nordtvedt (A Beka Books); ages 7-12 (877-223-5226, order #56480)
This wonderfully readable book tells of life in Leyden, the Mayflower passage, first year hardships, and the first Thanksgiving feast from the point of view of a young boy. The sparkling dialogue and expressive feelings make this a historically rich and faith-filled account.
Voyage to Freedom by David Gay (Banner of Truth Trust); ages 9-12
A historical narrative of the Atlantic crossing through the eyes of one family. Their encounters with the actual historical figures provide a satisfying, adventuresome view of the Mayflower voyage, from their first steps aboard to their first steps on Plymouth.
Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving by Eric Metaxas (Tommy Nelson); ages 4-8
Among many wonderful books about Squanto, this one stands out, showing clearly that the primary player in the Thanksgiving story was not a Native American or Pilgrim, but God.
The Light and the Glory for Children by Peter Marshall and David Manuel (Revell); ages 9-12
A simplified version of the adult original, this thoughtful text details God's hand in American history from Christopher Columbus through George Washington. Questions at the end of each chapter can be used to spur family discussion.
Sarah Morton's Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl, Samuel Eaton's Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy, Tapenum's Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times by Kate Waters (Scholastic); ages 4-8
Authentically staged photos follow each child through a typical day, with a first-person narrative describing daily activities, family life, hopes, and fears.
Three Young Pilgrims by Cheryl Harness (Alladin Paperbacks); ages 4-8
Richly detailed, with engaging illustrations of the Mayflower voyage, the first wedding at Plymouth, the Indians, and the harvest. You'll appreciate the rich language and the child-friendly format.
For An Audio Version of The Story Try
The Legend of Squanto by Paul McCusker, (Focus on the Family Radio Theater), www.family.org/resources/search.cfm
Focus says this is "more than a story about an honest man who triumphed over tragedy. It is also a tribute to forgiveness, integrity, and the ability to look beyond the color of a man's skin."
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.Click here for reprint information on Christian Parenting Today.