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Today’s Lesson…The True Meaning of Thanksgiving

by David Engle | Nov 23, 2021 | 4 min read

If someone mentions the Thanksgiving holiday (in America), what is the first thing that comes to mind? Probably turkey and mashed potatoes. Or Pilgrims and Native Americans feasting heartily at a communal table near Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The thing is, most of what we grew up learning or associating with Thanksgiving didn’t really happen way back in the colonial days. So, what did happen?

No one really knows, actually. The history of American Thanksgiving is mysterious at best, sinister at worst. The fact that Native Americans neither celebrate nor support the American version of Thanksgiving speaks volumes. The truth is, much of the story of the “first” Thanksgiving in America is built on legend and lore. There are very few records of what actually occurred on that day in 1621…in fact, there is some debate as to whether it even took place in November. Historians believe the feast was held somewhere between September and November.

As for the feast itself, much of what we eat at Thanksgiving dinner today wasn’t even on the menu 400 years ago. There is no record of turkey–or the turkey that we eat, anyway. Wild turkey, perhaps. Most likely fish, eel, lobsters, and other seafood. Possibly deer. Probably some local vegetables. As the years passed, Thanksgiving transformed into something entirely different than what occurred all those years ago.

The actual giving of thanks.

In reality, the concept of giving thanks was pretty commonplace during colonial times. New England colonists routinely celebrated “Thanksgivings”, which were days of prayer during which they thanked God for any number of blessings or events. Additionally, Canadians celebrated days of thanksgiving during the colonial period, showing their gratitude for bountiful harvests, peace, and safe journeys. Ah, simpler times.

It wasn’t until the 1860s that Thanksgiving even became a national holiday, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it as such in 1863. As America grew in size and population during the late 19th century and early 20th century, families became more splintered geographically, and Thanksgiving was an opportunity to gather once again and celebrate that togetherness. It was around this time that football games became an annual Thanksgiving tradition, as well as parades that still take place today.

Thanksgiving, despite its general historic mystery, remains one of the most beloved holidays of the year, when families truly cherish the time they have to reunite and gather, to share old memories and make new ones, to simply enjoy each other’s company. And while many of our families share their gratitude for all they’re lucky enough to have, Today’s Lesson is about giving thanks to others.

Here are a few ways that children of all ages can give thanks this holiday season:

  1. Volunteer at a VA medical center or other veterans’ group.

What better way to give thanks than to help veterans who sacrificed their lives for our country? The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs operates an amazing student volunteer program, where students (especially those who may want to pursue a career in medicine) can volunteer at a VA medical center in a variety of areas.

If you’re not quite ready for your child to be in a hospital environment, Soldiers’ Angels offers thousands of virtual volunteer positions to serve as “Team Angels” who work to provide support for deployed service members, military families, wounded heroes, and veterans of all eras. These Angels help arrange care packages, cards and letters, Adopt-a-Family programs, baby showers for expecting service members or spouses, and so much more.

Not only do these good deeds build character and spread goodwill, they also look great on college applications and resumes.

  1. Make a surprise visit to a loved one, friend, or someone in need.

Maybe your child knows a friend who is sick or has a grandparent in an assisted living facility. A surprise visit is always a welcome gesture! Especially if the reason for the visit is to thank them for being a wonderful friend or an inspirational adult figure in their lives. It’s a deed that costs nothing but goes a long way.

  1. Donate to a charity of your choice.

It doesn’t have to be much–spare change, a few dollars, whatever your child can afford. But giving that money to a local church, school, library, or other institution that may have served your family is always an appreciated act and a way to thank that institution for being there and providing service to your family and community.

  1. Say it out loud.

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” – William Arthur Ward

It’s true. How will anyone know your child is full of gratitude if they don’t actually verbalize it? Well, they could write a letter, draw a picture–there are plenty of creative ways to express gratitude. But there’s simply no better way to communicate thanks than by saying it out loud–and explaining why they’re grateful. It could be to a relative, a friend, a teacher, anyone who has made a positive impact on your child’s life. It could even be you! That would make you feel pretty good, wouldn’t it?

  1. Pray.

This can be a prayer for a loved one, a stranger, someone in need…or simply say a prayer to thank God for always being there for you. Of course, prayer shouldn’t be exclusive to the Thanksgiving and Christmas season–but during this holiday of giving thanks, it’s definitely an opportune time to share your gratitude to God.

  1. Do something unasked.

This can literally be almost any type of chore or task in the house–as long as it’s not already on your child’s chore list! For example, clearing the table and helping to wash the dishes during Thanksgiving dinner is a wonderful show of gratitude for the time spent hosting and cooking a delicious meal. Or thanking the server (with a note or by saying it out loud–see #4!) for the great service at a restaurant. Or giving a small, thoughtful gift to someone who serves your family–a mail carrier, a police officer or firefighter, a teacher, or anyone else your child can think of!
This Thanksgiving, rather than focusing on what may or may not have actually happened back in 1621, have your child direct their attention to the here and now. The world is a very divided place these days, but it’s acts of gratitude and kindness–especially from children–that can restore love and peace at a time when this planet really needs it. Your child doesn’t have to spend a dime (unless he or she wants to, of course!) or a lot of time…all it takes is a simple gesture, a few words, and thoughtfulness to give thanks. And that is Today’s Lesson. Interested in reading other Today’s Lesson blog posts? Check out our Math and Marine Biology lessons!

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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