Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Canadian Thanksgiving: Tracing its Origins

Canada celebrates Thanksgiving every second Monday of October. The celebration, as we know it today, keeps the essence of being grateful for a bountiful harvest received. It also mirrors deep faith and gratitude to a supreme being that protects, blesses, and listens to every citizen's prayers.

Thanksgiving dinner in Canada
The origins of Thanksgiving have been subject to much debate and argument. The Americans claim that the tradition began with them; however, Canadians say that their Thanksgiving celebrations are closely associated with their European roots. Early Europeans have had a tradition of holding festivals of thanks after harvest time. This takes place in October. Additionally, the first North American Thanksgiving celebrations happened in Canada in the year 1578. An English explorer named Martin Frobisher set foot at Newfoundland and wanted to offer his gratefulness for his safe passage and arrival into the New World. This would mean that the initial Thanksgiving in Canada happened 43 years earlier than the time the American pilgrims first arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

- A Thanksgiving Service, attended by Canadian troops, being held in the Cambrai Cathedral (Notre-Dame de Grâce chapel)
For over 200 years, Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving either in late October or early November. It was declared as a countrywide holiday in 1879, and the official celebration was set for November 6th of every year. However, things took a turn for the better on the last day of January in 1957. The Canadian Parliament changed the date of the annual Thanksgiving celebrations to the second Monday of October and gave the holiday a more spiritual tone than just a day of merrymaking. The Parliament dedicated as the day to give thanks to the Lord for blessing the whole of Canada with abundant harvest.

One of the reasons the Thanksgiving celebration was moved was because the celebrations for the Canadian World War Remembrance Day, usually observed on November 11 falls on the same week as the Thanksgiving holiday. Canadian Thanksgiving is a grander celebration, as there are several things they are generally grateful for – a bountiful harvest, the arrival of explorer Martin Frobisher and the arrival of the French settlers.

- Shopping for pumpkins at Thanksgiving in Ottawa's Byward Market
 From a geographical point of view, another reason why Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving earlier than their American counterparts is that Canada's harvest season occurs earlier.

As Canada is situated further north than the USA, its harvest season arrives a few weeks earlier. This makes perfect sense for sectors who believe that Thanksgiving celebrations are about giving thanks for a bountiful harvest for the year.

Frobisher's Influence

Martin Frobisher was an English explorer who had been looking for a Northern passage to the Pacific Ocean. The first Thanksgiving celebration credited to him was not due to harvest, but due to gratitude for having survived the long and perilous journey from England to Newfoundland. Frobisher braved rough storms and the threat of icebergs as he explored uncharted waters. His third and final voyage to the region was in 1578 and it was at Frobisher Bay in Baffin Island (known today as Nunavut) where he held the first Thanksgiving ceremony. The service was officiated by a preacher named Robert Wolfall. This was also one of the first recorded celebrations where Holy Communion was given out. This tradition was carried on and observed regularly as more settlers began to live in the Canadian colonies.

The French Connection

The French settlers have also been given credit for propagating Thanksgiving. The settlers arrived in New France in the company of explorer Samuel de Champlain at the turn of the 17th century. The new settlers were also celebrating during the end of harvest season. They typically held feasts and shared their food with the indigenous people who lived in the area. Incidentally, it was Samuel de Champlain who campaigned for the establishment of the Order of Good Cheer in 1606. The Order was made up of a small group of Port-Royal's elite and their mandate was to create a superb gastronomical feast for all the members. The produce should be sourced through hunting, fishing and harvesting in the rich Canadian environment.

As more and more settlers came to live in Canada, Thanksgiving celebrations especially after a good harvest became more common. This practice blended with the traditions of the Irish, Germans and Scots.


Thanksgiving turkey
 Different countries and cultures may celebrate Thanksgiving at different times of the year but they do share some commonalities. For one, no celebration is complete without roasting a turkey and whipping up a feast of side dishes and desserts to go with it.  Turkeys were originally called guinea fowls and originated in Madagascar.  They started figuring into the celebrations at the height of the American Revolution. That was the time that the United Empire Loyalists fled to Canada.  Since then, the proud fowl has been equated with Thanksgiving. This is probably because a roast turkey is a hearty and generous meal that is best shared with family and loved ones.

The Language of Gratitude

Thanksgiving is a day set aside for people to reflect on all the blessings they received for the year. It could be any number of things – a plentiful harvest, safe passage or journeys, healing, promotions or financial freedom. Whatever it is that you and your loved ones are thankful for, what's important is to acknowledge all that you have received and continue to receive, and be truly thankful for them.

Culturally, Thanksgiving is a tradition that keeps families close together. From wherever they might be, family members come back home and be with their families to celebrate and give thanks. Those who cannot go back home still try to embrace the essence of the holiday by forming their own circles. They still share lavish and carefully prepared meals and toast to their successes. They celebrate life, friendships and their accomplishments.

While it is true that the celebration of Thanksgiving cuts across race and religious beliefs, there is a resounding theme to it.  No matter what language they speak or the actual date when they celebrate Thanksgiving, it is overshadowed by their spirit of gratitude. And this is why Thanksgiving is and will always be a day to acknowledge that we cannot do it on our own.

 Photo Credits:

No comments: