Thanksgiving traditions for families

How to Weave History into Thanksgiving Traditions for Families

I am excited to have Nicki Truesdell here with wonderful ideas about how to weave history into Thanksgiving traditions for families. Not only are her book suggestions and ideas historical, but they are fun.

I am looking forward to trying some of her ideas with my family! I think my favorite is the 5 kernels of corn.

How to Weave History into Thanksgiving Traditions for Families


I am really excited to be sharing about Thanksgiving on Heather’s blog today! It is a wonderful American holiday, steeped in a beautiful history and meaningful tradition.

We live in a world of revisionist, cynical history, and it’s often difficult to find accurate resources about Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims, and their life in the Old World and the New. So I’d like to help you by sharing a list of great books to read with your family, as well as some traditions that really illustrate the history in a memorable way.

Our Pilgrim forefathers were devout Christians who wanted to worship God freely. They were humble and devout, and their influence on America lasted for many generations. So for me, this holiday has nothing to do with turkeys (except the one at the dinner table), but is all about God’s faithfulness to His children, and confirms the idea that we were truly founded on biblical principles.

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Thanksgiving activities for families

Accurate Books about Thanksgiving


When it comes to reading about history, I always recommend going to original sources. And the first book on this list is about as original as it can get:

Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford – As the journal of the governor of the Plymouth colony, this book delivers a firsthand account of the life of the “pilgrims” before they left England, why they left, how they spent 12 years in Holland, and why they ultimately left Holland for America. In short, they fled religious persecution under the Church of England, and following that, they left a secular society in Holland that they felt was damaging to their children:

“But still more lamentable, and of all sorrows most heavy to be borne, was that many of the children, influenced by these [difficult physical] conditions, and the great licentiousness of the young people of the country, and the many temptations of the city, were led by evil example into dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and leaving their parents. Some became soldiers, others embarked upon voyages by sea and others upon worse courses tending to dissoluteness and the danger of their souls, to the great grief of the parents and the dishonour of God. So they saw their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and become corrupt.”

This is an excellent book for adults and high schoolers to read. It’s written in 17th-century English, so be prepared to go a bit slower, but it is worth every minute.

Pilgrim Stories by Margaret Pumphrey – Elementary and middle school students will enjoy the stories in this old chapter book. The best part is, it’s based on Of Plymouth Plantation, so provides an easier-to-read version of a wonderful primary source. It’s an excellent history book for your children to read, or as a family read-aloud.

Three Young Pilgrims – A picture book that brings every stage of the Pilgrim’s journey (old world, voyage, new world) to life, this one is definitely a keeper! I’ve been reading it to my children for years, and I’m holding on to it for my future grandchildren. It’s perfect for any child who will sit still long enough to read with Mom or Dad!

Sarah Morton’s Day, Samuel Eaton’s Day, and Tapenum’s Day
Using photographs from Plymouth Plantation, these books describe the life of a Pilgrim boy and girl, as well as a Wampanoag boy. Fun for kids who want to see living history acted out in pictures! In our family, costumes have often played a part in our Thanksgiving celebrations. This book might encourage your kids to dress up as their favorite Pilgrim or Indian!

Focus on the Family Radio Theatre presents The Legend of Squanto – This dramatized theatrical telling of the story of Squanto is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon baking or preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. Squanto’s story is one of the many amazing examples of God’s protection and care of the little band of Pilgrims.

Thanksgiving Traditions for Families

Thanksgiving Traditions for Families do not have to be fancy or expensive. To make memories, just choose a couple of meaningful things and do them again and again. Here are just a few that we do.

Thankful List – The month of November is a perfect time to practice thankfulness with kids! Each day of November, encourage your children to name one thing they are thankful for. Depending on the ages of your kids, this list can get pretty entertaining!

We’ve done this several ways: a decorated posterboard with drawings or stickers around the edges, a drawing of a tree on cardstock or posterboard with little leaves to write on, etc. Make it a morning or bedtime habit each day to add something new!

One other way we do this to include extended family is to make a list at Thanksgiving dinner that everyone can write on: grandparents, cousins, neighbors…everyone! I’ve prepared in advance for this by making up a couple of simple scrapbook pages and laying them out for everyone to sign when they gather for the big meal. (See my blog post about these HERE.)

thanksgiving traditions for families

Save your lists from year to year to look back on. They are such great memories!

Five Kernels of Corn – We first began doing this when I was a teenager, and it still continues today. According to a firsthand account of the conditions at Plymouth Plantation, the story goes like this:

Although the bounty of the summer of 1621 brought a time of heartfelt gratitude (the first Thanksgiving), the Pilgrims’ obligation to repay the backers who had financed their voyage left them dangerously close to starvation. Food stores had all but disappeared.

At one point, a daily ration of food for a Pilgrim was 5 kernels of corn. With a simple faith that God would sustain them, no matter what, they pulled through. History records that not a single one of them died from starvation that winter. Not a one.

The harvest of 1623 brought a surplus of corn, so much that the Pilgrims were able to help out the Indians for a change. So joyous were they that they celebrated a second Day of Thanksgiving and again invited Massasoit to be their guest.

He came, bringing with him his wife, several other chiefs and 120 braves. All sat down to a feast of 12 venison, 6 goats, 50 hogs and pigs, numerous turkeys, vegetables, grapes, nuts, plums, puddings and pies. But, lest anyone forget, all were given their first course on an empty plate.

They were each given 5 kernels of corn.

In our family, we read a version of this story and begin our Thanksgiving meal with only 5 kernels of corn on each plate. It’s a very moving time. I have never gotten through it without tears.

If you’ve read my book recommendations above, you’ll be very aware of the trials the Pilgrims endured and will feel very attached to this humble little band of starving families.

Read my full blog post HERE and get your corn ready!

Pilgrim Hat Cookies – I don’t know how many years we have made these, but they are always a hit with kids! I’m no fan of turkey decorations when there’s something more interesting to celebrate. These double as a craft and a recipe, and can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator. They’re great for a party with friends or a formal Thanksgiving meal. Watch this video at Parents.com for the recipe.

Costumes – What child doesn’t love to dress up? In our family, costumes are a year-round thing, so including them in the Thanksgiving holiday is just normal! We’ve had little Pilgrims and Indians at many of our family gatherings, and even had a bit of face paint from time to time.

You don’t have to be a master seamstress to have a few fun costumes handy. Scour thrift stores during October for Indian costumes, feathers, belts, boots, brown tunics (or any color tunics), and big hats. Or buy felt or fleece by the yard and cut a poncho-style garment with a hole for the head and cinch it with a belt. Felt and fleece don’t need stitching!

Thanksgiving traditions for families

If you’re up to making costumes with just a bit of sewing, try this FREE Pilgrim costume tutorial at Made Everyday. And you can use a similar method for some very easy Indian costume at Dresses and Messes.

Recipes – Family recipes are one of the best Thanksgiving traditions for families I can think of. Do you have special dishes that you serve each Thanksgiving, or are there family favorites that everyone looks forward to? Celebrate those! Let your children help with the cooking! If you don’t host Thanksgiving dinner at your house, choose a dish that your kids can help with (even if it’s the start of a new tradition). As your children get older and become more experienced cooks, let them make an annual favorite on their own.

Does Grandma make a special side dish or dessert that everyone loves? Ask to get involved by watching, helping, or getting a copy of her recipe! Take photos of the process with family members all together in the kitchen. I have some photos of my grandmothers and aunts making holiday meals and now that they are all passed on, these unstaged photos are priceless!

Have You Found New Thanksgiving Traditions for Families that are Right for Yours?

There are numerous ways to make Thanksgiving a rich experience over a day, a weekend, or for the whole month! Enjoy this special holiday with a review of the past and traditions for the future.

Nicki Truesdell is a 2nd-generation homeschooler and mother to 5. She is a homemaker at heart, and loves books, freedom, history and quilts, and blogs about all of these at nickitruesdell.com. She believes that homeschooling can be relaxed and that history is fun, and both can be done with minimal cost or stress, no matter your family’s circumstances. Nicki is a member of the Texas Home Educators Board of Directors. You can follow her on  InstagramFacebook, and Pinterest.  

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lessons from home
Hello! I'm Heather and this is Baby Joel, the youngest of five. At Lessons from Home you will find encouragement for your parenting and homeschooling journey. Healing from loss is also a major part of this blog as my family struggles through grief and brokenness at the loss of my beautiful 8 year old daughter.
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