In the poem "The Pumpkin" by 19th-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier, Thanksgiving is described as a time of remembrance and return, a celebration of abundance at a family gathering. The poet depicts the scene in vivid detail, describing the fruits of a healthy harvest and the warmth of a kitchen sweet from baking. By the end of the poem, the speaker himself is overwhelmed by the splendor of the scene:
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow...
Whittier offers his reader the plentiful harvest as a symbol of a productive year, evoking the historical origin of Thanksgiving as the meal held in 1621 by the Wampanoag together with the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts; the harvest festival was a shared tradition of both cultures, and the account of a peaceful celebration between the two groups is still the basis for the holiday today.
In "The Thanksgivings," a traditional Iroquois prayer translated by nineteenth-century political advocate Harriet Maxwell Converse, the tone of reverence, gratitude, and celebration now attributed to the holiday is apparent in its anaphoric lines of praise:
We thank Him for all the fruits that grow on the trees and vines.
We thank Him for his goodness in making the forests, and thank all its
We thank Him for the darkness that gives us rest, and for the kind Being
of the darkness that gives us light, the moon.
We thank Him for the bright spots in the skies that give us signs, the
We give Him thanks for our supporters, who had charge of our harvests.
We give thanks that the voice of the Great Spirit can still be heard
through the words of Ga-ne-o-di-o.
We thank the Great Spirit that we have the privilege of this pleasant
However, America’s relationship with the Thanksgiving holiday has evolved several times since those initial harvest festivals. In 1777, George Washington proclaimed a day of “thanksgiving” in honor of the American defeat of the British at Saratoga. For generations, Thanksgiving was not an annual holiday but a sporadic celebration marking years of prosperity, and it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation of a national Thanksgiving Day on the final Thursday of November that the United States celebrated the holiday with much regularity. Then, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in hopes that an earlier Thanksgiving would increase spending during the Great Depression, declared that Thanksgiving would be a week earlier, allowing for more shopping time before the winter holidays.
Of course, the holiday, which falls near the end of Native American Heritage Month, is also a reminder of the displacement of Native Americans from their lands. In her poem “A Tribute to the Future of My Race,” early twentieth-century poet and Native American activist Laura Cornelius Kellogg reflects on cultural assimilation and the history of federal appropriation of Native American lands, ending on a somber note of loss:
Yea, the hearts’ right hand we give them,
Blue-eyed Royalty American,
Theirs, our native land forever,
Ours their presence and their teachings.
Ours the noblest and the best.
Since 1970, a group of protesters have gathered annually in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to hold a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving day in remembrance of the Native people who have been oppressed and killed throughout history, and who continue to face discrimination today. Thanksgiving offers a chance to reflect on this history and examine what it means to be American today.
Though it’s not without a complicated past, Thanksgiving remains a celebration of gathering and thanks. In her poem “Thanksgiving,” Ella Wheeler Wilcox stresses the importance of gratitude and celebration of one’s life and all the blessings that come with it:
We ought to make the moments notes
Of happy, glad Thanksgiving;
The hours and days a silent phrase
Of music we are living.
And so the theme should swell and grow
As weeks and months pass o’er us,
And rise sublime at this good time,
A grand Thanksgiving chorus.
“A Thanksgiving Poem” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
The sun hath shed its kindly light…
“Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo
The world begins at a kitchen table…
"The Transparent Man" by Anthony Hecht
I'm mighty glad to see you, Mrs. Curtis...
"Grace for a Child" by Robert Herrick
Here, a little child I stand...
"The Harvest Moon" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes...
"The Culture of Glass" by Thylias Moss
Columbo's eye, Peter Falk's indivisible...
“Thanksgiving in the Anthropocene, 2015” by Craig Santos Perez
Thank you, instant mashed potatoes, your bland taste…
“Thanksgiving” by James Whitcomb Riley
Let us be thankful—not only because…
"The Pumpkin" by John Greenleaf Whittier
Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun...
“Thanksgiving” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
We walk on starry fields of white…
Poems about Gratitude
“Thank You Jesus” by Teri Ellen Cross Davis
When the blue and red sirens pass you…
“A Toast” by Ilya Kaminsky
To your voice, a mysterious virtue…
"Slowly in Prayer" by Matthew Lippman
To be thankful for the Starbucks lady, Lucy,
"Thanks" by W. S. Merwin
“Blessings” by Jay Parini
Blessings for these things:
"A List of Praises" by Anne Porter
Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing,
"When Giving Is All We Have" by Alberto Ríos
We give because someone gave to us.
“Lasting” by W. D. Snodgrass
“Fish oils,” my doctor snorted, “and oily fish…
Poems about Home & Family
“In the City” by Chen Chen
These bridges are a feat of engineering…
"Congregation" by Parneshia Jones
Weir, Mississippi, 1984
“Kettle” by Phillis Levin
Flame under the bubbling water…
"My House, I Say" by Robert Louis Stevenson
My house, I say. But hark to the sunny doves...
“Pokeberries” by Ruth Stone
I started out in the Virginia mountains…
“New Jersey” by Craig Morgan Teicher
I was afraid the past would catch up with me…
Poems about Cooking & Food
“Butter” by Elizabeth Alexander
My mother loves butter more than I do…
"Eating the Bones" by Ellen Bass
The women in my family...
"The Bean Eaters" by Gwendolyn Brooks
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair...
“A Little Menu” by Don Mee Choi
“She Was Fed Turtle Soup” by Lois Red Elk
The willows were turning green, slips of leafs…
"Artichoke" by Richard Foerster
For all the bother, it's the peeling away...
“The Dream of Knife, Fork, and Spoon” by Kimiko Hahn
I can’t recall where to set the knife and spoon…
“Potato” by Jane Kenyon
In haste one evening while making dinner…
“Applesauce” by Ted Kooser
I liked how the starry blue lid…
"A Short History of the Apple" by Dorianne Laux
Teeth at the skin. Anticipation...
"Eating Together" by Li-Young Lee
In the steamer is the trout...
“This Sugar” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
When you ask me to split a dessert with you, I wince …
"The Traveling Onion" by Naomi Shihab Nye
When I think how far the onion has traveled...
“Amuse-Bouche” by Max Ritvo
It is rare that I …
Lesson Plans & Resources
Thanksgiving with Richard Blanco’s “América”
In his poem "América," Richard Blanco brings us into the experience of Thanksgiving celebrated by an extended Cuban American family, making us think about the many ways to be an American today. When your students add the experience of Thanksgiving in their families, the conversation around the poem becomes even more complex.
Teach This Poem: “One day is there of the series” by Emily Dickinson
Produced for K-12 educators, Teach This Poem features one poem a week from our online poetry collection, accompanied by interdisciplinary resources and activities designed to help teachers quickly and easily bring poetry into the classroom. In this one, Emily Dickinson’s poem is paired with an image of a Thanksgiving Day dinner menu from 1898.
Teach This Poem: “When Giving Is All We Have” by Alberto Ríos
In this Teach This Poem, the text of Ríos’s poem about giving and gratitude is paired with an audio recording of him reading the poem.
Thanksgiving: Poems for Kids
Browse poems about the Thanksgiving holiday and gratitude that are suitable for young people.