As a Canadian growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I don’t recall learning about the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving. My experience of Thanksgiving was certainly rich with the shorn stubble of a prairie harvest on the horizon, red wooden baskets filled with crabapples plucked from my Grandparents’ orchard, blue skies crowded with endless V’s of Canada Geese headed south, and first frosts shimmering on October mornings while whitetail deer snuck silently across our fields. This feast for the senses all culminated in the bounty of tantalizing, steaming dishes that lined my Grandma’s countertops on Canadian Thanksgiving.
As the great-grandchild of immigrants who fled persecution, I always felt that gratitude for freedom and for such bounty was easily summoned. The ever-present pot of soup, bubbling on my parents’ stove-top during this time of year, with flavours of the old country mixed with ingredients from the new, was an easy reminder my personal origins. But the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving? All I knew was the American version from the movies which depicted school-aged kids performing plays that featured Pilgrims, the Mayflower, and a harvest feast shared with Native Americans.
“But the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving? All I knew was the American version from the movies.”
After I moved to the US, I insisted on celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving so as not to lose the tradition and see it swallowed up by its much more exuberant counterpart. I was often asked about Canadian Thanksgiving traditions, which I could easily rattle off: turkey, football, pumpkin pie. But when asked about the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving, I was stumped. So I went digging. And every October I read a little more about both Canadian and American Thanksgiving origins. This year, I thought I’d share some of the details with you.
“Thanksgiving was certainly rich with the shorn stubble of a prairie harvest on the horizon, red wooden baskets filled with crabapples plucked from my Grandparents’ orchard, blue skies crowded with endless V’s of Canada Geese headed south, and first frosts shimmering on October mornings while whitetail deer snuck silently across our fields.”
While the Indigenous peoples of North America had been holding feasts to celebrate the fall harvest long before European settlers arrived, the first European Thanksgiving is thought to have taken place in North America in 1579. Following a treacherous expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, English explorer Martin Frobisher celebrated his fleet’s arrival on Baffin Island with a Thanksgiving sermon, Communion, and meal of mushy peas, salt beef, and biscuits.
Thanksgiving in modern-day feast-form doesn’t appear to have occurred until 1616 when French explorer Samuel de Champlain and a host of French settlers held a celebration of Thanksgiving in Port Royal, Nova Scotia with their indigenous neighbours, the Mi’kmaq. Not long after, a group of settlers who arrived in Virginia aboard the ship Margaret, held their own Thanksgiving celebration in 1619. The more well-known American Thanksgiving feast, which included Pilgrims who had traveled on the Mayflower, along with the local Wampanoag people, took place after the Pilgrims’ first harvest in 1621.
Between the Pilgrim and Wampanoag’s first Thanksgiving, and Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 declaring Thanksgiving to be held on the 4th Thursday in November, the holiday was celebrated intermittently in the United States. During this time, however, Americans who fled to Canada during the Revolutionary war brought with them turkey, squash, and pumpkin. Many thanks to our southern neighbours indeed!
Canada declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday in 1879, but couldn’t decide on a specific date until 1957, when the second Monday in October was officially declared Thanksgiving Day.
If you’re a history buff, or are just interested in learning more about Thanksgiving origins and traditions, this is obviously just the crust of the pie, there’s so much more beneath the surface that deserves digging into! Maybe I’ll make this a yearly post and share more next fall!
Historic details aside, I LOVE that our family gets to enjoy the fall season bookended by two Thanksgiving celebrations, one to kick it off, and the other to wrap it up. Truly the best of both worlds.
“I LOVE that our family gets to enjoy the fall season bookended by two Thanksgiving celebrations, one to kick it off, and the other to wrap it up. Truly the best of both worlds.”