The History of Canadian Thanksgiving


I’m thankful for Google Image Search. You never disappoint me.

To those who are celebrating this long weekend, Happy Thanksgiving!

Ever wonder how this holiday even got started in this country given that the Mayflower, Pilgrims, and whatnot have pretty much nothing to do with Canada? Why do we celebrate in October and not later on in November? Also, if our celebration isn’t based off the American one, why does our holiday meal similar to theirs? Well, good news! I have some answers for you.

The act of coming together with loved ones to express gratitude over a large meal existed long before Canadians and Americans appeared on the scene. Centuries before Europeans showed up on North American soil, First Nations gave thanks for successful harvests. For example, the Iroquois had a three-day celebration that honoured corn, beans, and squash. In the Plains, Wild Rice Festivals were celebrated because the grain was so crucial to their survival. Some First Nations included cranberries and maple syrup in their feasts too. Meanwhile in Europe, farmers gave thanks for successful harvests as well by celebrating with large feasts. So while Canadians and Americans didn’t invent the fundamentals behind Thanksgiving, but we did put a capital T on it by making it an official holiday.

A Man, Called Sir Martin Frobisher – Artist Unknown (c. 17th century)

There are two separate events in which the history of Thanksgiving in Canada can be traced back to. The first, and the one that most view as the start of the holiday, stems all the way back to 1578—more than 40 years before the Pilgrims arrived. Martin Frobisher, an English explorer and privateer, was on his third and final expedition through northeastern Canada in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. He was back for a third time because previously he found gold ore and this time around he was hoping to establish a small settlement on Baffin Island. Unfortunately for Frobisher, the third voyage was marred by terrible weather, ice, and the lost of one of his ships. A freak storm in July separated his fleet of 15 ships. Fortunately, they were able to reunite in August in the area that would become known as Frobisher’s Bay. To give thanks to God for reuniting them, Robert Wolfall, an Anglican priest and the chaplain of the voyage, brought everyone together have a communal meal and Eucharist mass. No turkey on the menu though. Instead they most likely dined on salted beef, crackers, and mushy peas. Yum?

Frobisher never established a successful settlement,nor did he find the Northwest Passage. Also, all that ore he found turned out to be iron pyrite aka fool’s gold. He technically did have a happy ending though. Frobisher was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for helping to fight off the Spanish Armada and he made a fortune by joining Sir Walter Raleigh on his expedition to the Azores.

The second event occurred in 1606. In the previous year, Samuel de Champlain and the settlers in Port-Royal, Acadia (Nova Scotia) had suffered an awful winter where several men died of scurvy. With winter on the horizon, Champlain came up with the idea to keep everyone’s spirits up by establishing a social club called the Order of Good Cheer. Baron de Poutrincourt, Intendant to the King of France in North America, was expected to arrive on November 14th, so that was set as the date for their first club meeting. Champlain also invited their Mi’kmaq neighbours to the festivities.

The Order of Good Cheer by C.W. Jefferys (1925)

Medallion of the Order [Source]

Théâtre de Neptune: First play in Canada, 1606
An imaginary reconstruction by C.W. Jeffreys.

Champlain wanted the day to be about both food and entertainment. As a result, Poutrincourt had one heck of a reception. “Theatre de Neptune en la Nouvelle-France” by Marc Lescarbot (French author/poet) was performed, making it the first European theatre production in North American history. Officially, only 15 men (of higher social ranking) were welcomed into the Order, but participating in the communal feast was always open to everyone in the settlement. The Order’s feasts occurred weekly throughout that winter and then later became an annual tradition in the fall.

The Order of Good Cheer by C.W. Jefferys (1925)

“We spent this winter very pleasantly, and had good fare by means of the Order of Good Cheer which I established, and which everybody found beneficial to his health, and more profitable than all sorts of medicine we might have used.” – Samuel de Champlain, The Voyages, 1613.

When the British took over in 1763, the date of and reason for celebrating Thanksgiving began to vary and became particularly dependent upon one’s location. For example, that year Halifax (who were by and large English) held Thanksgiving to celebrate Great Britain’s victory over France. Naturally, citizens in Montreal did not celebrate that in their own city. Reportedly, Lower Canada and Upper Canada observed Thanksgiving on different dates and when they merged the holiday was not celebrated annually. Once it was even held in April to mark (the future) King Edward VII’s recovery from an illness. Even after Thanksgiving was made an official holiday in 1879, the date still bounced around between October and November because the government used to tie the holiday to a certain theme or event each year (a harvest, special anniversary, etc). It was even combined with Remembrance Day for a short while.

It wasn’t until 1957 when Parliament said enough was enough and settled on the second Monday of October as the official date. The proclamation by the government states that Thanksgiving is, “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.” The harvest aspect is important; it is why the holiday is in October as that date is closer the time in which Canadian farmers actually harvest. Also, it was felt that Remembrance Day deserved a day of its own and that separating the two would be best.

Note: We do have the Americans to thank for some of the hallmarks of our Thanksgiving meal. Loyalists continued to celebrate American Thanksgiving (eating turkey, pumpkin, and squash) when they came up here to escape the War of Independence. Thanks guys. The holiday wouldn’t be the same without pumpkin pie.

Do you celebrate Thanksgiving? What are you thankful for this year?


Sources

“Champlain’s “Order of Good Cheer,”” Canadian Museum of History. September 1, 2009. Accessed from: http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/vmnf/champlain/vivr2_en.shtml

Collinson, Richard, The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher: In Search of a Passage to Cathaia and India by the North-West, A.D. 1576-8. Cambridge University Press (2010).

Duncan, Dorothy, Feasting and Fasting: Canada’s Heritage Celebrations, Toronto: Dundurn Press (2010).

“History of Canadian Cookbooks: The Order of Good Cheer.” Library and Archives Canada. Accessed from: https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/cuisine/027006-1140-e.html

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4 thoughts on “The History of Canadian Thanksgiving

    • cadeauca says:

      Having a long weekend is always something to be grateful for.

      Yes, Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official holiday (occurring on the last Thursday of November) in 1863. Maybe having it on a set date for longer is why Thanksgiving is a much bigger deal down south?

      Like

  1. Yvonne says:

    Oh, yay for pumpkin pie any day of the year!

    When I was a kid (in Saskatchewan, well before the 1957 official date for Thanksgiving was set), the church we went to had an annual “Fall Supper” around the beginning of October. I always thought it was “Fowl Supper”. 🙂 I can still taste the wonderful roast chicken and pumpkin pie, with genuine whipped cream.

    We don’t take any notice of Thanksgiving here in Australia.

    Like

  2. cadeauca says:

    100% agree! Pumpkin pie is glorious.

    Haha aww, “Fowl Supper” is pretty cute. What a lovely way to have brought the community together.

    Is Halloween a big holiday in Australia?

    Like

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