Everyone knows how American Thanksgiving began. The story of the pilgrims and the Native Americans enjoying a feast has been told so many times it’s almost become a myth. With Canadian Thanksgiving fast approaching, I’ve begun wondering — how did Thanksgiving start in my beloved homeland?
Unlike America, there was no single event that lead to Canadian Thanksgiving. Instead, Canadian Thanksgiving was the result of many traditions combining into one.
Days devoted to thanks have existed for a long time, starting when Noah made his thanks offering after leaving the Ark. One of the earliest recorded Thanksgiving traditions started in Port-Royal, where, at the suggestion of a man known as Samuel de Champlain, the Order of Good Cheer was formed.
Port-Royal had just undergone a hard winter. Many people had become ill with scurvy. Some had died. As a result, morale was very low. The Order of Good Cheer was formed to combat this. To this end, the Order of Good Cheer used was hosting public gatherings.
The first of these gatherings took place in November, 1606. It could be described as Canada’s earliest recorded Thanksgiving. Nearly every white man in Port-Royal joined in, as did many of the Mi’kmaq people.
These gatherings took place weekly, from winter to spring, stopping briefly during summer and fall, before being taken up again in winter.
A century later, Canada was flooded by Loyalists, who brought their own Thanksgiving traditions with them. This is why our Thanksgiving traditions have much in common with American Thanksgiving — turkeys and pumpkins being a few examples.
The first official Thanksgiving day was declared in 1872, during November. I was surprised by that fact. For those who don’t live in Canada, Thanksgiving here is celebrated in early October. American Thanksgiving is in November. Every year, I get cards from my American cousins, wishing me a happy Thanksgiving a month too late.
Even after a lifetime of receiving these cards, I’m still slightly startled when I realize that, for Americans, Thanksgiving hasn’t come yet.
How did our Thanksgivings transfer from November to October?
The answer, like much of Canadian history, is annoyingly simple.
For a while Thanksgiving was on the closest Thursday to November 11. Eventually, the government just moved Thanksgiving to the eleventh. The problem was, November 11 had just been made home to another official holiday — Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I.
I’m not sure how people where supposed to celebrate both these holidays at the same time. Perhaps they were supposed to be thankful for the end of the war?
In 1931, Armistice Day was replaced by Remembrance Day, and Thanksgiving was booted to the second Monday in October. Thanksgiving hasn’t changed dates since. Like I said before, annoyingly simple.
If this were America, the story of how a national holiday changed date would doubtless contain more fireworks, and possibly a museum or two.
Nowadays, Thanksgiving is celebrated throughout Canada. Of course, Canada is a big country, and there is a lot of variation between provinces. In B.C., Nanaimo bars often form an important part of the Thanksgiving feast. Butter tarts are associated with Thanksgiving in Ontario, and in Newfoundland, Jiggs Dinner (similar to stew) often replaces roast turkey.
Soon the 145th Thanksgiving since 1872 will take place. National, provincial and personal Thanksgiving traditions will come into play. Delicious food will be cooked and served. For that, I am thankful.
When researching this article, I was unable to find any information about First Nation autumn festivals or days devoted to giving thanks. If you happen to know anything about that particular subject, please let me know.