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Thanksgiving: 6 topics for your English class

November 19, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

“November had come; the crops were in, and barn, buttery, and bin were overflowing with the harvest that rewarded the summer's hard work. The big kitchen was a jolly place just now, for in the great fire-place roared a cheerful fire; on the walls hung garlands of dried apples, onions, and corn; up aloft from the beams shone crook-necked squashes, juicy hams, and dried venison--for in those days deer still haunted the deep forests, and hunters flourished. Savory smells were in the air; on the crane hung steaming kettles, and down among the red embers copper sauce-pans simmered, all suggestive of some approaching feast.” - Louisa May Alcott, 'An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving'

These lines from Louisa May Alcott take us back in time to a small village among the hills of New Hampshire, and show us how exciting, rich and colourful Thanksgiving was. Thanksgiving is a special holiday in North America, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in the United States and on the second Monday of October in Canada. Let’s learn about this tradition through some activity tips for your students.

1 Learn about the origins

Things to know:
Thanksgiving has its roots in two traditions. On the one hand, it is seen as a kind of harvest festival to give thanks for the crops and celebrate the end of long days full of hard work.  On the other hand, it is connected to the religious Days of Thanksgiving, brought to America by the pilgrims and the Puritans. 

Questions for your students:

  • What is a harvest festival?
  • What is a Harvest Moon?
  • Is there a harvest festival in your area? What happens there?

Research tips for students:

  • Find information about the history of the pilgrims, Plymouth Rock and the first British colonies.
  • What was the relationship between the first pilgrims and the Native American Indians like?
  • Find information about the first harvest feast in 1621.

2 Talk about the history of Thanksgiving

Things to know:
Although Thanksgiving has its roots in tradition, and it has been celebrated in the American states since the 17th century, it didn’t become an official holiday until 1863, when the president, Abraham Lincoln, made it an official holiday for all states on the last Thursday of November. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who, in 1941,  changed the date of the national holiday to the fourth Thursday of November.

Research tips for students:

  • Find information on how Thanksgiving is also connected to the Revolutionary War and Evacuation Day in the United States?
  • Who was Sarah Josepha Hale? What is her role in the history of Thanksgiving?
  • Learn about why there is also criticism against this holiday.

3 The commercial side of Thanksgiving

Things to know:
Thanksgiving Day is also an opportunity for department stores to hold parades and start sales on the day after Thanksgiving. The most famous one is Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which was first organized in 1924. The day after Thanksgiving Day is also called Black Friday. Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumer awareness agency launched Buy Nothing Day on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day.

Questions for your students:

  • Look at a video showing Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. What is it like? Would you like to be there?
  • Why do you think department stores time their Black Friday events in this period?
  • Find out more about Buy Nothing Day. Tell the class about it.

4 Thanksgiving Day traditions

Things to know:
Thanksgiving is a special holiday in the U.S. It is a time of family gatherings, students travel home this weekend, and a Thanksgiving meal is the highlight of the celebration. Whether a family is religious or not, Thanksgiving is an important event for the family. People give thanks and talk about what they are grateful for in the past year. Some families decorate their homes with flowers, pumpkins and other harvest products. It is the opening of the winter holiday season. There are other important events for Americans, such as American football, basketball and ice-hockey games and special television programs on this weekend.

Research tips for your students:

  • Find pictures of decorated streets and homes for Thanksgiving.
  • What is Turkey Pardoning?
  • Find interesting Thanksgiving Day traditions.


Sleepy Hollow dinner
A real feast in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Illustrated by Giuseppe Palumbo. © Helbling Languages


5 The Thanksgiving dinner

Things to know: 
A traditional Thanksgiving meal is a real feast, and people often eat a lot on this day. The most typical dishes are: roast turkey and gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, Brussels sprouts, mashed turnip, creamed onions, pumpkin pie or pecan pie. There is usually apple cider on the dinner table. 

Questions for your students:

  • What dishes would you enjoy from the traditional Thanksgiving dinner?
  • Choose a meal and check its recipe.
  • What dishes would be on your Thanksgiving dinner menu?

6 Giving thanks

Things to know: 
Traditionally, people say a prayer and give thanks to God. Some people go to church, and others say a prayer at the dinner table. The idea of showing gratitude is also connected to the harvest festivals. In general, the most important aspect of the festival is to meet other family members and think about things we are grateful for this year and in our lives.

Questions for your students:

  • What are you grateful for?

Research tips for your students:

  • Collect quotes about thanksgiving and giving thanks.

“Reflect upon your present blessings of which every man has many - not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” - A  Charles Dickens, Christmas Carol and other Christmas Writings

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