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Fall has always been my favorite time of year. Leaves change colour, orchards burst with ripe apples, bright orange pumpkins litter the fields and occasionally on country outings I’ve even seen groups of wild turkeys foraging.
Here in Canada, we celebrate a special day in October called Thanksgiving. I’ve always thought of it as giving thanks for the harvest. It’s also a time to give thanks for family and friends and to have a feast. When I was growing up, that always included roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, cooked carrots, brussel sprouts and pumpkin pie with whipped cream for dessert. My parents owned a hobby farm north of Toronto and we’d source as much of our menu locally as possible. After a long trek in the back woods, my brother and I would enter the house and suddenly be wrapped in a heavenly aroma – the roasting bird. The warm air of the house was welcome after our adventures in the chilly outdoors. My mother always tasked me with creating a centre piece for the table, either a cornucopia overflowing with fall produce or a collection of gourds, leaves and any late blooms I could find. When we sat down to eat, my dad would say a special Thanksgiving grace and then we’d pile our plates high with delicious, harvest bounty.
Thanksgiving in Canada is different from Thanksgiving in the United States. Our neighbours celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November and it marks the first harvest of the first non-indigenous inhabitants – the Pilgrims, who came to America to escape religious persecution in England in 1621. Traditional squash, turkey and potatoes play just as big a part down there as in Canada. On a secular note, the holiday is spent watching football (we have the Canadian Football League Thanksgiving Classic, but it’s not quite the same hoopla as the American National Football Leagues’ matches). The day after Thanksgiving is also the launch of Christmas shopping, that mad dash of blockbuster specials known as Black Friday.
What is the origin of Thanksgiving and why do we celebrate when we do? Long before the Europeans arrived, Indigenous peoples celebrated the harvest season with communal feasts. In Europe, successful crops also called for a banquet but it was not an official, continent-wide event.
For the Europeans transplanted to what is now Canada, one school of thought says the holiday can be traced to British explorer Martin Frobisher who was searching for the Northwest Passage in 1578. His voyage was thwarted by a vicious storm and his fleet of 15 ships was separated. A month later they reunited in an area we know today as Frobisher’s Bay. The Anglican chaplain of the voyage gathered them altogether for a meal of salt beef, biscuits and mushy peas and led a Eucharist mass to give thanks to God for keeping them safe.
Another school of thought pays homage to Samuel de Champlain, who headed a small group of settlers in Port-Royal, Acadia (Nova Scotia). In 1606, Champlain kept the spirits of the struggling group up by founding a social club called the Order of Good Cheer. Intricate menus featuring freshly caught game were planned, entertainment was staged and local Mi’kmaq families were invited. The club’s weekly feasts in the winter eventually became an annual tradition in the fall.
Thanksgiving was made a Canadian holiday in 1879 but the date varied between October and November each year since the government tied it to various themes and events such as special anniversaries and even Remembrance Day. Not until 1957 did Parliament proclaim the official date: “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.”
In researching this story, I learned that Thanksgiving is a statutory holiday in every province except New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. In Nova Scotia, Thanksgiving is a Designated Retail Closing Day, meaning some retail businesses are prohibited from opening, but it is not a paid holiday as in other areas of the country.
Thankfully, Thanksgiving has evolved from Frobisher’s salt beef and mushy peas, to an annual gathering where we can celebrate the bounty of this country and love for our family and friends.