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Explain Thanksgiving to a Child

Explain thanksgiving to kid

Most children in the U.S. view Thanksgiving as a bridge between the excitement of Halloween and the joys of Christmas or Hanukkah. Though many kids may like seeing family and friends, eating turkey and pumpkin pie, and a having long weekend away from school, Thanksgiving often seems like a lackluster holiday to little ones by comparison. However, explaining Thanksgiving to a child can help them develop a greater appreciation for this day of gratitude and celebration.

Like any abstract concept, it’s best to keep it simple when explaining Thanksgiving to a child so they are not overwhelmed or confused. There are many approaches to take, whether you wish to focus on its history and lore, how it became a national and international celebration, the sentiments behind Thanksgiving, or some combination of contexts. Ultimately, your child will appreciate your effort to clarify the meaning of Thanksgiving so they have a better understanding of this special holiday.

Thanksgiving History and Lore

Unfortunately, in the U.S., the history of Thanksgiving is usually portrayed in a rather simplistic, idealized, and reductive manner. As the fabled story generally goes, the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated in 1621, an event marking the first harvest of the Mayflower survivors in the “New World.” The three-day feast was attended by over 50 Pilgrims and nearly 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe, as they came together to give thanks. This is often an appealing story to children with its themes of hard work, cooperation, and bountiful sharing among European newcomers and Native Americans/Indigenous Peoples.

However, there are innumerable complications and conflicts that are left out of this first Thanksgiving portrayal, such that it falls between actual history and fictional lore. Younger children may benefit from this version to give them a sense of the origins of Thanksgiving, but it’s important to be carefully truthful in explaining to older children that the situations and outcomes were far more complex. In fact, parents can prepare to balance the history and lore of the first Thanksgiving by finding age-appropriate books that offer a more realistic and balanced perspective.

Thanksgiving (Official) Holiday

Though many people assume that Thanksgiving became an annual event after the feast in 1621, it actually took much longer for the U.S. to officially establish this holiday. Older children may be interested to learn that a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale is considered the “Godmother” of Thanksgiving. In 1846, over two hundred years after the “first” Thanksgiving, Hale began a public writing campaign urging politicians to make Thanksgiving a national celebration.

Hale also insisted that the last Thursday in November would be the perfect Thanksgiving Day. Her argument was that harvests would be gathered by then and any remnants of summer travel (and disease) would be gone, leaving everyone to enjoy a day of thanks. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln finally declared Thanksgiving a national holiday on the last Thursday in November. Part of Lincoln’s proclamation was encouraging the nation to heal the wounds of civil war and restore peace to the Union.

In addition to explaining the origins of the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, it might be interesting for parents and their children to explore similar versions that are celebrated across the world. More than 15 countries across five continents officially recognize a day of giving thanks, with their own cultural traditions, food, and celebratory activities.

Thanksgiving Sentiment

In addition to the history and stories associated with this holiday, perhaps the most important aspect to explain to a child about Thanksgiving is the sentiment of gratitude and belonging it inspires. Most families participate in Thanksgiving traditions that have been passed down through generations, connecting the past, present, and future. Some of these traditions may include:

  • Special recipes, food, and drink
  • Blessings and/or prayers
  • Activities such as volunteering, hosting large gatherings for neighbors, friends, etc.
  • Antique decorations, dishes, serving items, etc.
  • Watching parades and/or football games

Be sure to point out to your children these family traditions and describe any memories you have that are associated with previous Thanksgivings, relatives, and meaningful moments. If you don’t have any particular Thanksgiving traditions from the past, you and your children can come up with one or two new ones to celebrate together each year such as a fun dessert or making place-cards for the table.

Thanksgiving is also a perfect time to encourage children to learn and express gratitude. Though this concept may be difficult to explain at first, most kids have an innate understanding of what it means to be thankful. One of the easiest ways for families to express and teach gratitude is for each person to choose something for which they are grateful and explain why. The adults can begin so that they model appropriate examples. Remind your children that gratitude can be expressed for more than just “things.” People can be thankful for where they live, the people they know, and even their pets.

In fact, parents can start a new Thanksgiving tradition by listing what each family member is grateful for in a notebook and adding the date. Kids can draw pictures to add to this “gratitude scrapbook,” making it a fun keepsake and interesting record of a family giving thanks across time. No matter how you decide to spend Thanksgiving or explain it to your child, as long as they feel a sense of togetherness and love, the holiday will be meaningful.

One of the best ways to foster a sense of belonging and learning in children of all ages is taking part in activities that are both fun and challenging, such as strategic board games and interesting puzzles. At Cognisprings, we support parents and their children with these activities and others that are thoughtfully designed, educational, and unique. Our products allow families to connect with each other and enhance a child’s understanding of the world while building fond memories. They are also excellent options for screen-free fun, healthy cognitive development, creativity, and literacy skills—especially during the busy holiday season.