What does Thanksgiving mean to you? To most Canadians, the Thanksgiving holiday means a long weekend spent away from work, school, and other regular routines, spent instead with family, friends, and long-lost “associates”. Some of the aftereffects are leftover turkey that will serve as lunch and dinner for the next three weeks, a hangover you can’t remember contributing to, a messy house to be cleaned, and lots of dishes to put away. Especially for those blessed with lots of friends and big families. Between all that, how can we possibly find time to think about what this holiday truly means to us or how it even came to exist in the first place—right?
The history of Canadian Thanksgiving goes back several centuries. In fact, historical records indicate that various First Nations tribes celebrated a ceremony of thanksgiving many years before the European settlers arrived. Their celebration included gift-giving and ceremonial dances performed in the spirit of thankfulness to Mother Nature for a successful harvest.
The first recorded European take on it is in 1578, when English navigator Martin Frobisher held a formal ceremony in Newfoundland to give thanks for surviving his third voyage—the largest Arctic expedition in history. Frobisher was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to discover gold in the New World, and was granted 15 ships and 300 ore miners. Although the only thing he ended up mining was worthless iron pyrite (fool’s gold), he was knighted and Frobisher’s Bay was named after him. Frobisher’s ceremony was not, however, intended as thanks for a harvest but as a celebration of homecoming and of having successfully endured the brutal Arctic.
Nevertheless, it’s often recognized as the first Thanksgiving ceremony in Canada.
A few years later, the arrival of French settlers brought another Thanksgiving ceremony. Samuel de Champlain and his settlers held a festival in 1606, mainly to celebrate the fact that they had survived a cruel Canadian winter and had escaped death of scurvy. They even formed “The Order of Good Cheer”, a society which consisted of the elite of the colony, in which each member in turn was required to bless the wild game served in the meals. Their feast was celebrated and they shared their meals with the local indigenous tribes, who were critical in helping the French survive in the New World. Together, they celebrated survival.
The history of Thanksgiving also links Canada with its southern neighbours. The Pilgrims are credited with initiating the Thanksgiving tradition in America. The Pilgrims were Calvinist Christians who fled to avoid religious persecution in England, and who came to establish a permanent settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1691. The purpose of their gathering was to celebrate their survival and their harvest in the New World. Their tradition spread north around 1750 with the immigration of some Pilgrims to Nova Scotia.
The tradition of Thanksgiving continued in Canada for various purposes and at various times. In 1763, the citizens of Halifax held a unique “Thanksgiving Day” after the Seven Year War ended. The first Thanksgiving Day as a civic holiday was celebrated on April 5, 1872, after the Prince of Wales recovered from an illness. (This prince later became King Edward VII.) Starting in 1879, Thanksgiving was celebrated every year, although it was still not quite what we know it as; it was always held on a Thursday, and each year the holiday was supposed to commemorate a different event. From 1921 to 1931, Armistice Day (or Remembrance Day, as we now know it) and Thanksgiving were celebrated on the same day, but afterwards they became separate holidays again.
Finally, on January 31, 1957—only 54 years ago—the Canadian parliament proclaimed “a day of general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest which Canada has been blessed…to be observed on the second Monday of October”. Since then, Canadians have celebrated Thanksgiving annually.
Now that we have taken a few minutes to ponder the historical importance of this holiday, let’s consider what Thanksgiving means to you. Thanksgiving is celebrated in a spirit of gratefulness, a time to feel content with all that has been given to us and all that will be given—however and wherever it came from, if we can afford to be in this country, in our homes, at this university, we must admit we have been blessed.
The day gives us a moment to consider all that we have and all that is so easy to be taken for granted. This commemoration is especially precious in the time and age that we live in: a fast-paced industrialized society where the goal is to get the latest version of the iPhone, a new Gucci bag to match the Dolce pumps, or a new car. We should take this day to offer our own thanks for having survived, and be appreciative not only of the food that nourishes us, but also of the people who are part of our lives and who help us become better people as we grow.
Take a moment to reflect who you are, who you were, who you’ve become, and who you want to be and everything that has brought you to where you are and helped you be who you are. Whether you do it on the second Monday of October, or any other day, take a minute to practice the ancient wisdom of being thankful.