In 1621, the English colonists, better known as Pilgrims, at Plymouth and the Wampanoag (People of the First Light) Indians of North America shared a feast celebrating both the survival of the Pilgrims during their first winter in the New World and the relationships between the colonists and the Indians. Historians call it the 1621 Harvest Celebration, but we know it as “Thanksgiving”.
On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth Harbor in England, bound for Virginia. Violent storms blew the ship off course and the ship landed in what is currently known as Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on November 9, 1620. Having spent two months at sea, the colonists found themselves in the midst of a harsh New England winter. This made it very difficult to find food and shelter. While the Pilgrims struggled to build homes, they continued to live aboard the Mayflower. Many colonists, already weakened by their strenuous journey, perished during the first few months. By spring, less than half of those that set out for the New World remained.
Continue reading for extensive history to share with your Montessori class, as well as some fun thanksgiving activities to enjoy!
Celebrating Thanksgiving with Montessori Activities
On March 6, 1621, a Wampanoag named Samoset walked into the Pilgrim’s camp to introduce himself. He and Tisquantum (Squanto) had been kidnapped a few years before by explorers and were able to communicate with the Pilgrims. This led to the Pilgrims signing a peace treaty with Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe. Tisquantum, meanwhile, taught the Pilgrims how to grow crops in the New World, as well they shared knowledge of where to fish and hunt.
That autumn, after the harvest, the Pilgrims decided to hold a feast to celebrate their good fortune. The meal was not a large, sit-down meal as it is today. The feast lasted for several days. Massasoit and at least 90 of his men joined the Pilgrims. The children played games and the men entertained themselves with military expositions. There was also singing and dancing done by both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. Although the modern Thanksgiving tradition is celebrated with roast turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, the Pilgrim’s feast was much different. It included: turkey, geese, duck, venison, lobster, clams, oysters, fish, seal, cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, turnips, radishes, onions, beets, corn, and wild fruit.
The most detailed description of the celebration comes from colonist Edward Winslow’s journal:
"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
In November 1846, a woman named Sarah Hale began a 17-year letter-writing campaign designed to make the last Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving. After the Union’s victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving Day. On November 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed legislation declaring the fourth Thursday in November to be a federal holiday.
As with many holidays, there are many activities to help children of all ages celebrate and learn more about America’s Thanksgiving.
- Scholastic.com offers a great interactive and educational slide show meant for children of elementary age. It includes information on the Voyage of the Mayflower, Daily Life of both Pilgrims and Wampanoag, and The Thanksgiving Feast. There’s even a webquest that the children may participate in after they have seen the slide show. Simply go to the Scholastic website to get started. One way to really get the children engaged is to sign up to receive letters from children in the 1620’s! You receive three letters from a girl traveling on the Mayflower and three letters from a Wampanoag boy delivered to your email address. Sign up for these letters at the Scholastic website.
- Have a school-wide Thanksgiving Feast. The first Montessori school I taught at had done this from its inception and it has long become a yearly tradition. In fact, many alumni state that this is one of their fondest memories!
Children’s House – Fruit Salad
Lower Elementary – Vegetable Plates with Dip
Upper Elementary – Mashed Potatoes
Middle School – Stuffing
Parents will gladly donate the ingredients if given proper notice. You can also ask parents to donate pre-cooked, carved turkeys. Be sure that the tables are set with tablecloths and real cutlery and plates. It is an important day! Also, the decorations are made the week beforehand by the children. It’s a lot of work that is well worth the effort. Make sure you have enough parents to help with the clean-up, though!
A great centerpiece for any table is a Pine Cone Turkey. (I think my mother still has the one I made many, many years ago). Your Montessori students will enjoy this activity.
What You Need:
- A Pine Cone
- An acorn or a nut in a shell
- Construction paper (red, brown, yellow, orange) (Trace feather shapes for younger children)
- Pencil or marker
- Hot glue
- Googly eyes
- Cut “feathers” out of construction paper
- Place a small piece of clay to the underside of the pine cone to keep it from wobbling around on the table.
- Glue the construction paper feathers to top of the wide end of the pine cone. Using hot glue, glue the nut to the front end of the pine cone. (Adult supervision required with younger children).
- Glue googly eyes and a red construction paper “wattle” to the nut. (To avoid staining a table or tablecloth, place the turkey on a plate before using as a centerpiece).
NAMC’s Lower Elementary Cultural Geography manual includes many other cultural celebrations from around the world.
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.