The Curious History of Canadian Thanksgiving Customs

A country’s culture and customs are much like a living organism in that they are ever changing, morphing and evolving.  Thanksgiving in Canada is no exception.  The holiday we now know as Thanksgiving has a very rich, interesting and at times, confusing history. As we now know it, Thanksgiving is held every year on the second Monday in October.  Thanksgiving is Canada and America’s harvest festival, though it didn’t always start out that way.

Canada’s First Nations people traditionally celebrated the bounty of their fall harvests and future fertility in the spring, as many other populations also did throughout history. With this already in place at the time the early European settlers came crashing onto the rock we now know as the Province of Newfoundland, the Thanksgiving holiday we now celebrate every October was well on its way to becoming what it is now.  After all, without the assistance of knowledge and food from those that were here before us, the numbers of settlers who died from starvation and a general lack of medicine, would’ve skyrocketed.

There is more to it than that however, as is the case with most good stories. This is part of what makes the history of Canadian Thanksgiving so confusing and yet completely fascinating. You see, much of Thanksgiving in Canada, is a combination of the European and American Thanksgiving traditions. When Martin Frosbisher, the man who is believed to have been the first voyager to land a ship on the land we know as Canada, anchored his ships, the traditional British holiday was brought over.  However, with the added gratitude for having actually made it all the way to the America’s after a turbulent and troublesome trip across the Atlantic.

Later on, France sent over extra explorers to settle in the abundant new lands of Canada, and formed their own “Order of Good Cheer”, which gave thanks with many ‘thanksgiving’ type holidays, openly and jovially sharing with their First Nation brothers and sisters. This transformed the holiday even further, combining the French Christian version of harvest season celebrations, with the Native versions.

There were several other landmarks throughout history which further modified the holiday celebrations and customs associated with our present day holiday.   For example, up until the American Revolution, Thanksgiving wasn’t celebrated every year in Canada as it now is.  When the Revolution came, Canada became a hot spot for settlers who remained loyal to the British Crown (Loyalists), and later for those who were aiming to avoid being drafted into military service in the various 19th century wars, all of whom brought their traditions and customs with them.  Even though much of the American version of Thanksgiving also originated in European and Pagan traditions, there were plenty of unique traits that were established when the American Settlers found themselves to be new Canadians.

Following the new Canadian-American-European-Native American Thanksgiving, even more meaning was giving to the day, as Canada experienced its own turbulent periods of war. The Lower Canadian Rebellion, World War I and several other smaller squirmishes, were tough on Canadians from all walks of life, and so when Thanksgiving came around, it became a time to be thankful for the end of these battles.

By 1879, Thanksgiving was still celebrated in late November, as it still is in the USA. It wasn’t until 1957, that the date was officially declared to be the second Monday in October. After that, there were some interesting attempts to combine Thanksgiving with Armistice Day, which didn’t end up working out as well as they had hoped. Eventually, Armistice Day was transformed into Remembrance Day and Thanksgiving was again given the full honor as its own holiday.

Since then, Thanksgiving in Canada has blossomed and grown as all of its cousin holidays have. With Turkey and Duck, Green Bean Casserole, loads of Cranberries, Sweet Potatoes and Pumpkin Pies.  The American influence remains evident in recent changes noticed in the Canadian tradition.  Such American customs associated with the Thanksgiving holiday that are now readily experienced in Canada include Thanksgiving football, and other sporting events, and shopping sales to name a notable few.  There are also plenty of festivals, shows and entertaining events that local Canadians and tourists alike get to enjoy. Some of the more interesting 2012 Canadian fall festivals and events coming up:

  • Cruisefest Antique & Classic Car Show
  • The Festival of Banners
  • The Barrie Film Festival
  • The Fort Fright Carnival of Carnage
  • Thunder Bay Pumpkinfest
  • Oktoberfet in Pembroke
  • The Thanksgiving Harvest Craft Show
  • Chappell Farms Fall Festival

And many more spread across the country.

The heritage, culture, entertainment, food and events are well worth the trip, if you’re considering traveling for into Canada in October. If you’re a local, and you’re looking for a new adventure this harvest season, make sure to check out your local events calendar, or go a little crazy and create your own thanksgiving tradition and event. You could do so by following in the footsteps of others, and volunteering at a soup kitchen, hospital or with a basket brigade. Or you could think of a whole new sport, maybe something with hockey sticks and pumpkins… The only limit is your imagination, and the infinite ways in which you can find to celebrate your gratefulness for life, liberty and the universe in general.

References:

Canadian Thanksgiving – http://gocanada.about.com/od/canadatravelplanner/a/thanksgiving.htm

Martin Frobisher – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Frobisher

Order of Good Cheer – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Good_Cheer

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