Why Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving

It’s almost that time of year again! Widely celebrated by Americans across the country, Thanksgiving is an integral holiday to our country’s history. While many celebrate the holiday with turkey, sweet potato casserole, and touch football in the backyard, the story of Thanksgiving often goes overlooked. 


If you aren’t familiar with why Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, or would like to brush up on the story before sharing it with your exchange student, ICES is here to help. 


It all began in September of 1620. A ship called the Mayflower departed Plymouth, England with 102 passengers aboard. The passengers were religious separatists looking for a new home in which they could practice their beliefs without constraint from others. Many of them were drawn in by the possibility offered by the “New World,” including opportunities for land ownership. 

Mayflower ship


The voyage lasted 66 days until they finally arrived near Cape Cod, which was actually many miles north of where they intended to arrive at the Hudson River. After a few weeks, the Mayflower picked up their anchor once more to cross the Massachusetts Bay. Those on the Mayflower voyage became commonly known as Pilgrims, and they worked together to establish a village. 


Many of the Pilgrims remained on the ship during the first harsh winter, however they ended up suffering from exposure, scurvy, and outbreaks of various contagious diseases. Only about half of the Mayflower’s original passengers survived to experience their first New England spring. In March of 1621, the Pilgrims were greeted in English by a member of the Abenaki tribe. A few days later, another Native American, Squanto of the Pawtuxet tribe, became acquainted with the Pilgrims. Although Squanto had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping back to his home, he helped the Pilgrims. Squanto saw how weak the Pilgrims were by malnutrition and illness, so he showed them how to grow corn, draw sap out of maple trees, catch river fish, and steer clear of poisonous plants. 

corn field


Squanto didn’t stop there. He also helped the settlers create an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe. This relationship continued for more than half a century. Unfortunately, this alliance remains one of the only instances of peace between European colonists and Native Americans. 


Fast forward a few months to November 1621. The Pilgrims’ first corn harvest was a success! Governor William Bradford invited everyone to celebrate with a feast, including their Native American allies. This feast is now remembered as America’s first Thanksgiving. Their celebration lasted for three whole days. Historians believe that many of the dishes were likely prepared using Native American spices and cooking styles. 

Pilgrims and native Americans


The Thanksgiving celebration was carried on over the years in various capacities, until it eventually evolved to the feast we know it as today. 


As you express your gratitude at the table this Thanksgiving, I invite you to also remember the story of Thanksgiving. The Native Americans played an essential role in helping the Pilgrims survive in the New World. One way to respectfully recognize the Native Americans may be to offer a land acknowledgment (click here for a guide). 


Land acknowledgments are not only a small first step in recognizing the atrocities that European colonists have committed against Native Americans, but also invites an opportunity for your exchange student to understand the United States history in its entirety. 


You may also consider introducing some spices or cooking methods that were used by Native Americans during the time of the first Thanksgiving! 

family in kitchen laughing around turkey


Am I missing anything about the story of Thanksgiving? Comment below! 


Tags: Holidays

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