Canadian Holidays: THANKSGIVING David Watts 6 July 2003
The giving of thanks seems to be a universal human impulse—after the hunt, after safe homecoming, after the harvest, after a birth or another marker on the journey.
Some of our animal cousins may well have a sense of gratitude, as well as relief and pleasure as their needs and wants are met.
So far, however, we’ve not seen animal thanksgiving rituals after an accomplishment equivalent to the courtship and mating, feeding and nurturing dances and behaviour patterns preceding them.
So until shown otherwise, we may surmise that giving thanks—the willing acknowledgement of our dependence and interdependence on others and a larger Whole—is a specifically human trait.
We can go a step farther and suggest that opposites of thanksgiving—greed, grabbing, taking for granted, using, gorging, throwing away without thought—are behaviours that are less than human
If thanksgiving then is a human attribute, why does it matter what national or local manifestations of it are? What value is there for instance, in studying Canadian specific Thanksgiving traditions?
A study of Canadian Thanksgiving connects us to other branches of humanity that have taken root here. By looking at them and comparing them we can learn more of the human whole.
As co-tenants of North America together with the United States, we’ve tended to look most closely at the stories of our southern neighbour about the pilgrim fathers of New England in 1621.
There are older thanksgiving traditions among European born North Americans than these.
Seventeen years earlier the Order of Good Cheer, established by Samuel de Champlain in Acadia, combined feasting, celebration and gratitude in a series of special events throughout the winter.
These celebrations included the New French and first peoples, and continued when the centre of New France moved to Quebec in 1608.
We can go farther back still. In 1578—seventy-nine years after John Cabot reached the Rock, Martin Frobisher, another explorer for England held a thanksgiving ceremony in Newfoundland.
He had just completed a long journey, sailing across the Atlantic into the high Arctic, and returning safely. Today his name is on the Bay where Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut is located.
Frobisher lived in an Age of Thanksgiving. His Queen, Elizabeth I, had come to the throne, it seemed, by a miracle, escaping the axe of those who wished to return England to Roman control.
For years she gave thanks for her safe journey to power, and her people celebrated with her. Her last great speech to Parliament was one of mutual thanks and “you’re welcome” with her people.
Elizabeth’s reign brought an end, for a while, in England to the religious wars and persecutions that had ravaged Europe. “I want no windows into men’s souls” she said.
This spirit of tolerance and thanksgiving nurtured English culture, and Frobisher’s voyages.
New England’s Thanksgiving tradition came about in a different context. American Puritans left Britain to escape persecution under Elizabeth’s successors who claimed to rule by Divine Right.
Freed from oppression in the Old World, they oppressed other minorities in the New. This self-righteous spirit, as much as slavery, set North against South in the civil war two centuries later.
Canada’s tradition of tolerance followed the gratitude based spirit of the Elizabethan Settlement rather than the sense of separation and grievance that affected later societies and led to conflict.
Our thanksgiving celebrations come from different traditions, and their dates have also diverged. American Thanksgiving has been the 4th Thursday in November since the end of the Civil War.
Canada has observed Thanksgiving on four dates during that time. The first was November 6, declared by Parliament twelve years after Confederation.
The next was the third Monday in October.
After World War I the Monday of the week of November 11 became a combined holiday of celebration for the harvest and thanksgiving for the end of the War.
Then in 1931 the two celebrations were separated: Thanksgiving moved back to the third Monday in October, and a re-named Remembrance Day was set on November 11.
Finally in 1957 Canada’s Parliament proclaimed Thanksgiving as the second Monday in October, where it has remained since.
Britain’s Harvest Home festival comes in September, a result of earlier spring and seeding time.
For some who prefer their traditions to be rock solid, this change of dates may be disconcerting.
It is a reflection of the nature of Canada as an evolutionary society. Many of our national symbols —the Crown, the flag, our national anthem—have also changed over this time.
It’s also a reminder that thanksgiving is something we can do and be anytime. It is a state of mind we can carry with us year round, as it was practiced in the golden years of Good Queen Bess.
Canadians have many things to be thankful for. Among them are the streams of Thanksgiving tradition from many cultures and civilizations that flow together in our annual October festival.