A Summary of the Origins of Thanksgiving Traditions for English Learners

Understand the Origins of the Holiday

Thanksgiving Dinner
Thanksgiving Dinner. KidStock / Getty Images

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. When you are finished, look at the right answer below. 

1. Where did the Pilgrims live before they came to America?

a. Holland
b. Germany
c. England

2. Where did the Pilgrims originally come from?

a. Holland
b. Germany
c. England

3. How did the Pilgrims pay for their journey?

a. They paid their passage individually.
b. A group of English investors paid for them.
c. They won the lottery.

4. Why did they have to eat their food cold on their voyage from England?

a. They ate their food cold because there was no stove on board the ship.
b. They ate their food cold because of the danger of fire on a wooden ship.
c. They ate their food cold because they of their religion.

5. Why did they choose to settle in Plymouth?

a. They settled in Plymouth because it was a thriving city.
b. They settled in Plymouth because of the protected harbor and resources.
c. They settled in Plymouth because of the clean water from the river.

6. How many people survived the first winter?

a. 100
b. 50
c. 5,000

7. How had Squanto learned English?

a. Squanto had studied at an English speaking high school.
b. Squanto had learned English in England.
c. Squanto had learned English from his parents.

8. Why was Squanto so important to the Pilgrims?

a. Squanto taught them about food and how to plant crops.
b. Squanto negotiated with the local authorities.
c. Squanto hired them to work at the local factory.

9. How long did the first Thanksgiving last?

a. Three days
b. Three weeks
c. One week

10. Who was invited to the first day of Thanksgiving?

a. All the pilgrim's relatives were invited.
b. Neighboring Native Americans were invited.
c. Canadians were invited.

11. What problem did they have in their third year?

a. They had altercations with the local Native Americans.
b. It rained too much during the winter and damaged their crops.
c. The spring and summer was hot so crops died in the fields.

12. What happened after Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting?

a. The rain began.
b. They returned home to England.
c. They began to work in the fields.

13. Which US President appointed a national day of Thanksgiving?

a. Dwight D. Eisenhower
b. Abraham Lincoln
c. Richard Nixon

Answers:

  1. a. Holland
  2. c. England
  3. b. A group of English investors paid for them.
  4. b. They ate their food cold because of the danger of fire on a wooden ship.
  5. c. They settled in Plymouth because of the protected harbor and resources.
  6. b. 50
  7. b. Squanto had learned English in England.
  8. a. Squanto taught them about food and how to plant crops.
  9. c. Three days
  10. b. Neighboring Native Americans were invited.
  11. c. The spring and summer was hot so crops died in the fields.
  12. a. The rain began.
  13. b. Abraham Lincoln

This reading and exercise is based on the story "The Pilgrims and America's First Thanksgiving" written by the American Embassy.