I never really thought much about the history of Thanksgiving. When I was a kid I learned about the Pilgrims and the Puritans in Plymouth, Massachusetts and I coloured pictures of the Mayflower and turkeys wearing puritan hats. I watched my mom hang corn on the door, ate a big plate of turkey, and recited what I was thankful for but I had no idea of the real facts of our history. Have you ever wondered why Canadian and American Thanksgiving are more than a month apart? Ya. Me too. Now my middle-aged self, who tends to be a little more curious about such things than my younger self, has finally looked into the history of Canadian thanksgiving. Clearly, my whole life has been a sham! I had no idea that Canadian Thanksgiving has very little to do with American Thanksgiving. Why were we never taught our own history? No idea. Maybe it’s because the Puritan hats were so cute. Maybe the story of the Mayflower was much more romantic than that of the Ayde and her 14 sister ships but really, we would do well to make our own history a little better known.
What’s the Ayde, you ask? Well, let me tell you…
The first recorded formal thanksgiving on what is now Canadian land happened in 1578, long before Confederation. Back when our country was just being discovered, an explorer named Martin Frobisher, was making his third voyage on the flagship Ayde with his fleet of 15 ships from England to Greenland and then through the dangerous and icy waters up the Hudson Strait in search of the Northwest Passage. After nearly losing half the fleet, the ships finally came back together in Frobisher Bay. Frobisher had meant to make a settlement but had lost his ship, the Dennis, which was carrying the building supplies. Considering the odds against them and that they had managed to rendezvous almost unscathed, the chaplain who had traveled with them, Robert Wolfall, gave the first Anglican Eucharist on the new land in celebration and thanks for the safe delivery of the fleet.
I’m not sure, however, we can truly draw a link from the Frobisher expedition to our current tradition. It seems more likely that the tradition developed after the Seven Years War in 1763. This war encompassed a large portion of the world and was a major struggle, simply put, between the French and English (for more details on the war see here). At the end of the war, the British were victorious in taking New France. In Nova Scotia a large Thanksgiving celebration was held by the citizens of Halifax. Then, in 1799, in Lower Canada a Thanksgiving observance was held “In signal victory over our enemy and for the manifold and inestimable blessings which our Kingdoms and Provinces have received and daily continue to receive.” In the years following, Thanksgiving celebrations were held without regularity and all times of the year for various reasons – ends of wars, battles, and rebellions, the cessation of illnesses such as cholera, and simply for God’s mercies.
American traditions of the feast entered Canada with the influx of Loyalist refugees after the War of 1812, which ended in 1814. Turkey, pumpkin, squash, and the bounty of the harvest began to be incorporated into the feast. However, it wasn’t until 1859 that “abundance of the harvest” was officially celebrated. Finally, after Confederation in 1867, the first Thanksgiving celebration of a united Canada was held on April 5, 1872 for the recovery of the Prince of Wales. Subsequent “abundance of the harvest” celebrations were held in the fall, usually late October and early November unless there was a significant event to do with the Royals. For example, in June 1887 thanksgiving celebrated the “50th Anniversary of Her Majesty’s accession to Throne” and in June 1896 the “Diamond Jubilee of H.M. Queen Victoria”.
After the World War I, starting in 1921 Thanksgiving was celebrated in Canada on the Monday of the week in which Armistice Day (November 11th) fell. In 1931, parliament separated Armistice Day (renamed Remembrance Day) and Thanksgiving and each year, until 1957, held Thanksgiving by proclamation usually in early October. Finally, in 1957, Parliament fixed the holiday to the second Monday in October for “…general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the blessings with which the people of Canada have been favoured”.
And here we are in 2013, nearly 500 years after Frobisher, still giving thanks for our many blessings, eating lots of turkey (thanks to our American friends), and generally enjoying the bounty of the harvest, the closeness of family, the beautiful fall colours, and the freedoms hard-fought by our ancestors. Of course, none of us would be here if it weren’t for the brave and heroic adventurers who, either on purpose or mistakenly, landed here and began the exploration of this huge uncharted land. Although our history of Thanksgiving is a lot more chaotic than the well-formed folktales of the Mayflower, it is our history to embrace. This Thanksgiving, I think I’ll raise a glass to Martin Frobisher! Who’s with me? Happy Thanksgiving everyone!