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How did Canadian Thanksgiving Start?

As human beings, we should always be thankful for whatever happiness we come across in our lives. It not only expresses our gratitude to the Almighty, but it also helps us face the problems we stumble upon. A special day, designated to express our thankfulness, is Thanksgiving Day. This popular holiday celebrated with friends and family is an integral part of western culture.

Meaning of the Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day is celebrated across the United States of America and Canada as a day to express one’s thankfulness for the harvest. And also other blessings bestowed upon the people. The day is celebrated every year on the second Monday of October.

Earlier, Canadian Thanksgiving Day was celebrated irregularly, and at any time, something good happened, e.g., winning a war. As its name suggests, it was observed to thank God for the good things given to the people.

Origin of the Canadian Thanksgiving

The Bible holds the first mention of ‘Thanksgiving.’ It describes the day as an event to thank God for providing the harvest that would take care of and feed the people through the harsh winters.

British origins

Certain historians believe that the main festival of Thanksgiving in North America happened during Martin Frobisher’s journey in 1578 from England. The voyager started his journey to look for the Northwest Passage. His third journey, to the Canadian Territory of Nunavut, was commenced to begin a settlement in the region.

Sir Martin Forbisher
Cornelis Ketel / Public domain

His armada of fifteen boats was furnished with men, materials, and other arrangements. The quest, however, was not easy. Ice storms with their common occurrence made the journey distressing and also led to the loss of one of his ships.

The idea of thanking the almighty was then suggested by Mayster Wolfall, who was a pastor and minister in England. He urged that the sailors must thank God for saving them from devastation and death.

French origins

The traveler, Samuel De Champlain, also organized a feast of gratitude. He and some other French pilgrims accompanying him crossed the sea to reach Canada in 1604. To show their thankfulness to God for safe passage, they organized a feast.

The Seven Years War finally ended in 1763. the end of the gruesome war was met with much pleasure. To celebrate this day, the citizens of Halifax organized a thanksgiving feast.

The Canadian Thanksgiving then evolved into a harvest festivity by the French settlers to thank God for the harvest.

Finally, in 1776 America gained independence; however, not all Americans were happy with the defeat of the British. Some of the people decided to immigrate to Canada. These people were the ones who favored the British Rule and thus moved to British Ruled Canada. Starting from 1799, thanksgiving days were not held each year.

Various practices like the turkey, squash, etc. which were a part of the American Thanksgiving, were now introduced in Canada by them. When lower and upper Canada were two separate entities, the thanksgiving days were observed on different occasions. Till now, Thanksgiving was more of a ceremony than a festival.

Thanksgiving greetings
Unknown author / Public domain

Thanksgiving days for the end of the 1812 war between the U.S, France, and Great Britain were celebrated on different dates. Lower Canada celebrated it on 21st May 1816. meanwhile, Upper Canada celebrated the thanksgiving day on the 18th of June the same year.

Similarly, Thanksgiving was celebrated on two different occasions in the two parts of Canada. In Lower Canada, Thanksgiving was observed in 1838 to celebrate the end of the Lower Canada rebellion. The two parts of Canada were merged into one following the uprisings. Thanksgiving was observed multiple times from 1850 to1865.

Thanksgiving, however, remained a simple mid-week event during this period. After the three provinces of Canada were unified, or the Confederation Day, the thanksgiving day was celebrated on April 5th, 1872. The day was celebrated to commemorate the recovery of the then prince of wales, Prince (and later King) Edward VII from a grave illness. Still, Thanksgiving Day was not yet announced as a national festival.

The tradition of Thanksgiving, however, continued as an informal celebration, usually observed in late October or early November. From 1879, Thanksgiving was celebrated every year, on a Thursday in November.

Post World War 1 Developments

canadian thanksgiving; 1918
By Canadian Expeditionary Force albums – Unknown photographer – This image is available from the Archives of Ontario under the item reference code C 224-0-0-10-39, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3182312

After world war 1, an amendment to the Armistice Day act was made. It stated that both the events, i.e., the Armistice Day and Thanksgiving Day, be celebrated on the same day. Also, they were to be celebrated on a Monday of the week, on which the 11th of November fell. In 1931, the two holidays were separated.

The Armistice Day was renamed as the Remembrance Day. Till 1957, the date was different each year and declared by a proclamation. The date was generally on the second Monday of October.

The parliament decided upon the 2nd Monday of October as the fixed day for Thanksgiving each year in 1957. The holiday of Canadian Thanksgiving is given a different theme each year.

The American Counterpart

The 102 voyagers, known as the ‘pilgrims,’ set sail from England in 1960. they boarded a ship called Mayflower and set sail towards a new world, where they would set up a modern civilization.

However, fate proved to be cruel, and things didn’t go as planned. The journey proved to be complicated. After enduring the treacherous journey, they ended up landing in the cape of cod, which was far north from their destination.

After a month’s rest, the Pilgrims continued their journey to Plymouth, where the work of setting up the village commenced. The sailors, however, suffered from various contagious diseases and scurvy, a disease caused by the deficiency of vitamin c.

In these trying times, a local tribe that helped them overcome their problems. They helped them by introducing cranberries, a rich source of vitamin C. They also taught the pilgrims to harvest and stay wary of poisonous plants.

Thanksgiving at Plymouth
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe / Public domain

The first batch of corn was cut in 1621. A Thanksgiving dinner was set up to thank the Gods for the harvest.

The natives were also involved in the festival, which lasted for three whole days. Not long after, a drought threatened the crops. After days of fasting, another thanksgiving was organized in 1623.

Later, there were many events when Thanksgiving was celebrated in America for various reasons. In 1863, president Abraham Lincoln announced Thanksgiving a national holiday, during the American civil war. It was decided that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Thus started the tradition of Thanksgiving in America.

The Debate

Which Came First? American or Canadian Thanksgiving?

It is a lesser-known fact the Canadian Thanksgiving actually started years before the American Thanksgiving. Among the historians, it is without dispute, largely accepted that the tradition of Thanksgiving had started in Canada long before America. Even though the latter is more popular across the world, owing to its parades, sales, and other nationwide activities. However, even the origin of the Canadian Thanksgiving is questioned sometimes.

A long debate regarding the origin of the Canadian Thanksgiving has ensued among the historians. As mentioned earlier, most of the historians believe that the first Thanksgiving was indeed celebrated instead of Martin Frobisher’s journey. However, some argue that the event cannot be claimed as a thanksgiving event.

The essence of the day is to thank God for a good harvest. Therefore some experts say that it wasn’t a thanksgiving dinner, and the tradition of the actual Thanksgiving started much later. It is countered that the word ‘thanksgiving’ itself explains that an event organized to thank God is Thanksgiving. Since Martin Frobisher held a dinner to thank God, it can be considered as the first Thanksgiving. 

How did Canadian Thanksgiving Start? 1
Makaristos / Public domain

 

Difference between American and Canadian Thanksgiving

Listed below are the six significant differences between the American and Canadian Thanksgiving.

1.Time

The main difference between the American and Canadian Thanksgiving is the time at which it is celebrated in the two places. In Canada, the day is celebrated on the second Monday of October. Meanwhile, in America, Thanksgiving Day is observed on the fourth Thursday in November.

2. Origin

The Canadian Thanksgiving had its origin in 1857. This was when the British explorer, Martin Frobisher, held a feast to thank the gods for a safe journey. On the other hand, the first instance of Thanksgiving in America was in 1621. Therefore, Canadian Thanksgiving started before the American one.

3.Significance

 Another significant difference between the American and Canadian Thanksgiving is the reason behind the celebration. Canadian Thanksgiving is mainly a festival that started to celebrate a good harvest. However, it’s American counterpart is dedicated to thanking the native American settlers who saved the English settlers from starvation.

4.The Scale of Celebration

The scale at which the event is celebrated in America stands in sharp contrast in comparison to the Canadian Thanksgiving Day. In America, along with a four day holiday (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), black day sales succeed the Thanksgiving Day. The Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is enough to prove how big of a deal thanksgiving in America is.

    The Canadian Thanksgiving is the complete opposite of the American version. People usually just spend time with their families and enjoy dinner with them. There are no large, nationwide sales and no large-scale celebrations or parades. However, Some parades do take place at the local level.

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, USA
Midtownguy2012 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

    Canadians also don’t compulsorily host a thanksgiving dinner on a Monday. It can fall on a Saturday or the Sunday of the Thanksgiving weekend. In the cities of Montreal and Quebec, the scale of the event is even smaller. This is because these cities have a              catholic inclination while the event itself has protestant origins.

5.Holiday

It also not a mandatory or a nationwide holiday in Canada. It remains an optional holiday in the Atlantic Provinces of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

However, in the U.S., everyone gets a four day off, starting from Thursday (the actual thanksgiving day) till Sunday.

6.Shopping

 Unlike the U.S., there are no significant shopping events around Thanksgiving Day. The biggest shopping event is the Boxing day (not literally),i.e., the day after Christmas.

In the U.S., a sale called the Black Friday sale takes place the day next to Thanksgiving. The product prices drop sharply, pulling costumers towards malls like flowers pull bees.

 

How did Canadian Thanksgiving Start? 2
Powhusku from Laramie, WY, USA / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

 

What do People do on Thanksgiving Day?

Activities

 Most people prepare for a family get-together. People prepare special meals to share with their loved ones during the Thanksgiving weekend. Some people venture out for various activities, such as hiking, fishing, and the like. Some may also take a short vacation before the onset of the winter season, which also comes along with many things to enjoy in Canada.

The Canadian football league also organizes a particular match called the ‘Thanksgiving Classic,’ which airs on Monday afternoon on Thanksgiving Day. The teams that play are different each year. The game has been televised in the U.S. since 2009.

Thanksgiving menu

A typical Thanksgiving menu in Canada is quite similar to an American thanksgiving menu. Apart from the signature- stuffed turkey, a Harvest Rice Dish, Mashed Potatoes, Bacon, and Onion, Bread and Celery Stuffing, Mincemeat, and Pumpkin Layer Pie for dessert can be easily spotted on a Canadian thanksgiving table.

Thanksgiving Dinner
Photo by; Paul Townsend

Why is Turkey Eaten on Thanksgiving Day?

The tradition of eating turkey originally started in America. This bird was popular with the British hunters of America. The bird was uncommon enough to be a festive delicacy and big enough to feed a whole family.

The tradition of enjoying this dish was eventually brought to Canada by the British Empire loyalists. These were the Americans who moved to British ruled Canada after the end of British rule in America. However, some Canadians ditch the turkey for chicken and other meats of their liking.

Many signature dishes which include the cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, made on Thanksgiving Day might not have been present during the first celebrations. It is said that the settlers might not have had many ingredients like sugar and flour required for these dishes.

Canadian Thanksgiving is a long-standing tradition, started in 1857. This day has stood the winds of time and evolved into a festival of gratitude and familial love. People continue to celebrate the event with their friends and family on the continent of North America, where the people observe the day with a lot of excitement and zeal.

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