Skip to content
Billy HallowellNov 11, 2021 12:00:00 AM6 min read

How to Explain the Real Meaning and History of Thanksgiving to Kids

Thanksgiving is an exciting holiday that teaches us the power of thankfulness and gratitude — one that carries many lessons for kids and adults alike. And if you’re looking for how to tell the Thanksgiving story for kids, you’ve come to the right place.

This article will provide Thanksgiving history for kids, diving into the simple ways you can tell the story, meaning and history to your children.

So, let’s start our Thanksgiving for kids explainer:

The Thanksgiving Story for Kids: The Basic Details

As we explore Thanksgiving history for kids, it’s impossible to ignore our current celebrations. Many Americans observe Thanksgiving in a common way: by gathering around the dinner table with family and friends to eat turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, stuffing and other holiday staples. 

But what about the first Thanksgiving? As you’re recounting the Thanksgiving story for kids, we hope these details will help you. The holiday’s roots date back to 1621 when the Pilgrims — English colonists who had come to America — held a harvest feast with the Wampanoag, a Native American group, as Britannica noted.

It all started after some colonists went out to look for birds to eat. Then, after the hunt, the Wampanoag reportedly showed up at the Pilgrims’ settlement and the two groups engaged with one another and were friendly, with the Wampanoag bringing deer meat and other elements to the resulting celebration.

The positive interaction between the two groups led to decades of peace, and it inspired our modern-day celebration. These are fascinating details to consider as you break down Thanksgiving for kids.

Thanksgiving For Kids

Clarifying Some Myths While Explaining Thanksgiving for Kids

Now, there are some important points worth clarifying as we explore Thanksgiving for kids. The aforementioned event wasn’t really the first Thanksgiving, as there were other days of thanksgiving that preceded it.

The colonists and Native Americans didn’t necessarily consider it “Thanksgiving,” either, as we currently celebrate it. As you explain the Thanksgiving story for kids, remember, too, that there are other myths we need to contend with.

READ ALSO: 15 Powerful Bible Verses About Thankfulness and Gratitude

Consider that Thanksgiving wasn’t an official national holiday until 1941, centuries after the Pilgrims’ famed meal with the Wampanoag.

There are other myths as well, including popular imagery showing the Pilgrims wearing big hats and belt buckles (hint: that’s not quite accurate). Check out some of the other most pervasive Thanksgiving holiday myths.

Thanksgiving History for Kids: How It Became an American Holiday

As you tell the Thanksgiving story for kids, questions might arise about how the harvest festivities of 1621 led us to our modern celebrations. Thanksgiving history tells us that colonies and states celebrated days of thanksgiving after that celebratory day.

As you break down Thanksgiving for kids, keep in mind that the holiday celebration became an annual event in certain areas of the country, and the Continental Congress even declared the first annual Thanksgiving after the battle of Saratoga in 1777.

Later, noted that President George Washington became the first president to proclaim a national Thanksgiving.

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be,” Washington wrote

CHRISTIAN PARENTS: Get Resources to Help Lead a Godly Life and Have a Happy Family

In exploring this Thanksgiving history for kids, be sure to mention Washington’s role in the roots of Thanksgiving. It was his effort that inspired President Abraham Lincoln’s later work on the matter. As notes, it was in 1863 that Lincoln, in the midst of the bloody Civil War, issued a call for a Thanksgiving day of remembrance. Part of it read:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

This is an important Thanksgiving story for kids, as it tells part of the backstory of how the holiday came to fruition. But, as stated earlier, it wasn’t until 1941 that Thanksgiving became an official national holiday — one solidified and recognized by Congress.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sparked debate in 1939 when he broke tradition and named the second to last Thursday as Thanksgiving. It was reportedly a move made to help elongate the Christmas shopping season, but it left some frustrated.

Thanksgiving For Kids

As you explain Thanksgiving for kids, be sure to detail how this led to confusion, as some states stuck with Roosevelt’s decision, others chose the last Thursday and some even celebrated both. Chaos abounded, according to the Library of Congress.

In the end, Roosevelt signed a bill into law that marked Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November, with that law taking effect in 1942. This was done in an effort to ensure future presidents wouldn’t once again move the date.

Thanksgiving Story for Kids: Powerful Bible Verses

After recapping the Thanksgiving story for kids, consider recapping some of the powerful Bible verses we can focus on this holiday season. While these scriptures aren’t necessarily part of your Thanksgiving for kids history lesson, they are a wonderful supplement to get your children thinking deeper about the real meaning of the season.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” - 1 Thessalonians 5:16 – 18 (NIV)

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” - Colossians 3:15 (NIV)

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” - Psalm 46:1-3 (NIV)

“I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.” - Psalm 9:1 (NIV)

READ ALSO: 10 Perfect Thanksgiving Prayers to Share with Your Family

You can read the full list of Bible verses we put together about thanksgiving and gratitude here. And if you’re looking for more inspiration, sign-up for your free trial of Pure Flix today.

You’ll have access to thousands of TV shows, movies, documentaries and plenty more. Plus, you can access educational and homeschool titles here.


Billy Hallowell

Billy Hallowell has been working in journalism and media for more than a decade. His writings have appeared in Deseret News, TheBlaze, Human Events, Mediaite and on, among other outlets. Hallowell has a B.A. in journalism and broadcasting from the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, New York and an M.S. in social research from Hunter College in Manhattan, New York.