The Origins of Thanksgiving for English Language Learners

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
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Thanksgiving is one of the most popular holidays in the United States. Traditionally, it is a holiday that Americans spend together with their families. Thanksgiving dinner usually includes the traditional Thanksgiving turkey.

Improve your understanding of the holiday by reading the story that follows. Difficult words are explained at the end of each paragraph. Once you have read the story of Thanksgiving, take the reading comprehension quiz to test your understanding of the text.

The Story of Thanksgiving

The Pilgrims, who celebrated the first thanksgiving in America, were fleeing religious persecution in their native England. In 1609, a group of Pilgrims left England for the religious freedom in Holland where they lived and prospered. After a few years their children were speaking Dutch and had become attached to the Dutch way of life. This worried the Pilgrims. They considered the Dutch frivolous and their ideas a threat to their children's education and morality.

fleeing: running away from, escaping
prospered: do well, live well
frivolous: not serious
morality: belief system

So they decided to leave Holland and travel to the New World. Their trip was financed by a group of English investors, the Merchant Adventurers. It was agreed that the Pilgrims would be given passage and supplies in exchange for working for their backers for seven years.

backers: financial supporters

On Sept. 6, 1620, the Pilgrims set sail for the New World on a ship called the Mayflower. Forty-four Pilgrims who called themselves the "Saints," sailed from Plymouth, England, along with 66 others, whom the Pilgrims called the "Strangers."

The long trip was cold and damp and took 65 days. Since there was the danger of fire on the wooden ship, the food had to be eaten cold. Many passengers became sick and one person died by the time land was sighted on November 10th.

damp: wet
sighted: seen

The long trip led to many disagreements between the "Saints" and the "Strangers." After land was sighted, a meeting was held and an agreement was worked out, called the Mayflower Compact, which guaranteed equality and unified the two groups. They joined together and named themselves the "Pilgrims."

Although they had first sighted land off Cape Cod, they did not settle until they arrived at Plymouth, which had been named by Captain John Smith in 1614. It was there that the Pilgrims decided to settle. Plymouth offered an excellent harbor. A large brook offered a resource for fish. The Pilgrims' biggest concern was attack by the local Native Americans. But the Patuxets were a peaceful group and did not prove to be a threat.

harbor: protected area on the coast
threat: a danger

The first winter was devastating to the Pilgrims. The cold snow and sleet was exceptionally heavy, interfering with the workers as they tried to construct their settlement. March brought warmer weather and the health of the Pilgrims improved, but many had died during the long winter. Of the 110 Pilgrims and crew who left England, fewer than 50 survived the first winter.

devastating: extremely difficult
interfering: preventing, making difficult

On March 16, 1621, what was to become an important event took place. An Indian brave walked into the Plymouth settlement. The Pilgrims were frightened until the Indian called out "welcome" (in English!).

settlement: place to live

His name was Samoset, and he was an Abnaki Indian. He had learned English from the captains of fishing boats that had sailed off the coast. After staying the night, Samoset left the next day. He soon returned with another Indian named Squanto who spoke even better English. Squanto told the Pilgrims of his voyages across the ocean, and his visits to England and Spain. It was in England where he had learned English.

voyages: travels

Squanto's importance to the Pilgrims was enormous and it can be said that they would not have survived without his help. It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to tap the maple trees for sap. He taught them which plants were poisonous and which had medicinal powers. He taught them how to plant the Indian corn by heaping the earth into low mounds with several seeds and fish in each mound. The decaying fish fertilized the corn. He also taught them to plant other crops with the corn.

sap: the juice of the maple tree
poisonous: food or liquid dangerous to the health
mounds: raising of the earth made of dirt by hand
decaying: rotting

The harvest in October was very successful, and the Pilgrims found themselves with enough food to put away for the winter. There was corn, fruits and vegetables, fish to be packed in salt, and meat to be cured over smoky fires.

cured: cooked by smoke in order to keep meat a long time

The Pilgrims had much to celebrate, they had built homes in the wilderness, they had raised enough crops to keep them alive during the long coming winter, they were at peace with their Indian neighbors. They had beaten the odds, and it was time to celebrate.

wilderness: uncivilized country
crops: cultivated vegetables such as corn, wheat, etc.
beaten the odds: won something that was very difficult or against somebody

The Pilgrim Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native Americans. They invited Squanto and the other Indians to join them in their celebration. Their chief, Massasoit, and 90 braves came to the celebration which lasted for three days.

They played games, ran races, marched, and played drums. The Indians demonstrated their skills with the bow and arrow and the Pilgrims demonstrated their musket skills. Exactly when the festival took place is uncertain, but it is believed the celebration took place in mid-October.

proclaimed: declared, named
colonists: original settlers who came to the North America
braves: Indian warrior
musket: type of gun or rifle used during that period in history

The following year the Pilgrims' harvest was not as bountiful, as they were still unused to growing the corn. During the year they had also shared their stored food with newcomers, and the Pilgrims ran short of food.

bountiful: a lot of
newcomers: people who have recently arrived

The third year brought a spring and summer that was hot and dry with the crops dying in the fields. Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting and prayer, and it was soon thereafter that the rain came. To celebrate - November 29th of that year was proclaimed a day of thanksgiving. This date is believed to be the real true beginning of the present Thanksgiving Day.

fasting: not eating
thereafter: after that

The custom of an annually celebrated thanksgiving, held after the harvest, continued through the years. During the American Revolution (late 1770s) a day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress.

harvest: collection of the crops

In 1817 New York State had adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. By the middle of the 19th century, many other states also celebrated a Thanksgiving Day. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a national day of thanksgiving. Since then each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation, usually designating the fourth Thursday of each November as the holiday.

designating: appointing, naming

The History of Thanksgiving Quiz

Answer the following questions about Thanksgiving based on the story above. Each question has only one correct answer. This reading and exercise is based on the story "The Pilgrims and America's First Thanksgiving" written by the American Embassy.

1. Where did the Pilgrims live before they came to America?
2. Where did the Pilgrims originally come from?
6. How many people survived the first winter?
9. How long did the first Thanksgiving last?
12. What happened after Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting?
13. Which US President appointed a national day of Thanksgiving?
The Origins of Thanksgiving for English Language Learners
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The Origins of Thanksgiving for English Language Learners
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The Origins of Thanksgiving for English Language Learners
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