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Thanksgiving: Diversity, Traditions and Their Meaning to Children

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Miriam Forman-Brunell, Ph.D., Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City, interviewed by Anita Gurian, Ph.D., Senior Content Editor of AboutOurKids.org

AG: This is a time in the history of our country when our population includes people who come from many different parts of the world. Has Thanksgiving only recently come to reflect diversity?

MFB: It is worthwhile to remember that diversity is not new to America. The adults and children who feasted at the very first thanksgivings held in Plymouth in 1621 were themselves immigrants who were joined by Native-Americans who were, in fact, the first settlers in North America.

AG: Have Americans been celebrating Thanksgiving since the early 1600s? Have they always celebrated Thanksgiving for the same reasons and with the same rituals?

MFB: Thanksgiving was not uniformly celebrated until major efforts to nationalize it were undertaken late in the nineteenth century. It was during the Civil War, in fact, that President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, though several presidents before him (namely Washington and Jefferson) had issued similar proclamations. While their aims differed from Lincoln's it was his hope that Thanksgiving would reunite the country.

An important antebellum editor and writer named Sarah Josepha Hale had been promoting the holiday for decades before Lincoln's proclamation. Addressing the anxieties of many middle-class Americans like herself, Hale believed that Thanksgiving would strengthen family traditions, solidify the role of women as mothers, and allay fears about industrialization.

Despite these influences, other groups, such as Pennsylvania Lutherans, African-Americans, and Southerners, celebrated Thanksgiving in very different ways than those in New England. For instance, while African-Americans went to church on Thanksgiving, men in rural Pennsylvania and New York City masqueraded at parades and parties until the late 1800s.

AG: What role have children played in Thanksgiving celebrations?

MFB: On the heels of masquerading men, children dressed up in costumes and went door to door asking for treats much as children do on Halloween today. This Thanksgiving ritual did not last long, however. Early in the twentieth century, reformers and school teachers encouraged students instead to write festive poems and plays and to draw pictures of turkeys, pumpkins, and Pilgrims.

These school projects that were about American history, culture, and customs provided children of immigrant families with a new role as transmitters of history and tradition. Though adults typically transmit customs—especially those who tell family stories on Thanksgivings—it has been the children of immigrants who instructed their parents in American customs. So new customs became part of the family's life in addition to the customs of the country from which they came. While some adults have found Thanksgiving rituals alien to their own ethnic traditions, others have incorporated new customs in a process of cultural adaptation and assimilation.

AG: Does Thanksgiving have special meaning in the lives of children?

MFB: Diversity in family composition plays a part. Thanksgiving Day has often been depicted as a traditional nuclear family having a turkey dinner—a mother, father, boy, girl and family pet. For some children this is a reasonable image and reinforces their expectation that Thanksgiving will be a day celebrating traditions of family and country. This expectation becomes a reality for many children. However for some children who have less control over the circumstances of their family and of their emotional lives, the expectation to be "happy" on Thanksgiving Day might be difficult to attain. Far fewer American children today live in the traditional two-parent household, the kind that is featured in the popular culture and in our imaginations as the ideal model. And even some children who live with their parents may experience stress due to tensions between family members compelled to spend time together. On Thanksgiving, children may be unwitting witnesses to anger and aggression between family members. Children might feel sad for other reasons as well. Death, illness, divorce, military service and unemployment are among the many reasons why one parent or another might be absent. And for children living in poverty, Thanksgiving can be a raw reminder of the abundant food and comfortable homes of others.

AG: Are there ways in which children can be encouraged to reflect on and enact the spirit of thankfulness?

MFB: In addition to continuing the traditions established within their own families, children of all ages and backgrounds can be encouraged to celebrate with other families and to learn more about, and perhaps participate in, the rituals and traditions of other countries. While Thanksgiving is uniquely American in its cultural origins and meanings, different forms of harvest celebrations are held in countries all over the world. (For example, harvest celebrations in some cultures focus on the responsibility of the rich to provide for the poor.) Children should also be encouraged, when appropriate, to participate in community and school activities, many of which provide celebrations, including food and clothing for children and adults in need.

Date Published: November 17, 2004