Today, Thanksgiving Day is noted as a regularly scheduled annual affair, a time when families gather together to enjoy a turkey dinner complete with dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, with dessert usually consisting of a slice of pumpkin pie to typify the end of the harvest season.
It would undoubtedly surprise Manitobans to know that Thanksgiving Day was a hit-or-miss affair in the days of yore. It’s celebration depended entirely upon public enthusiasm and a general desire to ask the residing lieutenant-governor to proclaim a day of thanks for the year’s harvest. Enthusiasm for Thanksgiving Day was highest in years of plenty, but muted in years when the harvest faltered or some natural disaster struck.
Unlike today, Thanksgiving Day could occur virtually at any time in the fall. For example, the latest ever that Thanksgiving Day in Manitoba was celebrated was on December 5 in 1872, and this came only after pressure was exerted upon Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald to issue a proclamation.
Presbyterian Minister George Bryce wrote on November 9, 1872, to Manitoba Chief Justice Alexander Morris who became the lieutenant-governor a year later: “The Three Protestant Churches in the Province have agreed through their clergy on Thursday, the 5th day of December, as a suitable day for returning thanks to God for the mercies of the past year, and in behalf of the Presbyterian Church I beg, in order to its better observance, that that day may be graciously set aside by Public Proclamation, as was done last year.” The lieutenant-governor acceded to the request and on November 15 issued the public proclamation.
“Thanksgiving Day was very generally observed in Winnipeg,” declared the Manitoba Free Press on December 7, 1872.
After becoming a Canadian province in 1870, Manitoba’s first Thanksgiving Day occurred a year later when Archibald said the province had been blessed by “an abundant harvest during the season now past, and whereas it is proper and becoming that some public and united expression should be given of devout thankfulness to the Giver of all good for the mercies so bestowed.”
Technically, there had been two days of thanksgiving in 1872, since the federal government issued its own proclamation for a “Day of General Thanksgiving” for the restoration of health to the Prince of Wales.
The day to be set aside by the provincial government was November 16, 1871, which Archibald declared to be a public holiday. This Thanksgiving Day celebration was overshadowed by political unease in Manitoba. Newspapers were filled with news of a mass meeting organized in opposition to the lieutenant-governor and the anticipated arrival of troops from Eastern Canada to help with the already suppressed Fenian threat from the United States.
The celebration on October 16, 1873, was deemed by the Free Press as having been “generally observed, the fact that it was Thanksgiving Day not having been generally understood.”
During the next couple of years, Thanksgiving Day was actually completely ignored, which was not unexpected since the province’s crops had been ravaged by plagues of locusts. What had looked like a bountiful harvest was decimated for the third consecutive year because of the insatiable insects. On July 21, 1875, instead of calling for a day of thanks, a day of “humiliation and prayer” was proclaimed so that the people of Manitoba could humble themselves and ask God to save them from the plague.
A year later, the locusts did not return, so Manitobans felt that a Thanksgiving Day would be appropriate.
“Not only has the harvest been more generous than that of any other part of the Dominion, or perhaps any part of the continent, but the indications that for a long time to come we are to be free from the ravages of the locust ...,” according to an editorial in the Free Press on November 18, 1876.
The newspaper said it was time to once again observe the holiday, because “few communities have as many and as great reasons for giving hearty thanks to a merciful and an indulgent Providence than that which has its abode in this favored Prairie Province. We have an abundant harvest; we have not been visited by pestilence in any form; there is peace within our borders. We are a prosperous people, and ought to be contented and grateful people.”
“Thanksgiving was generally observed in the city,” reported the newspaper, “nearly all places of business were closed. Services were held in different churches, which were largely attended; and all sermons appropriate to the occasion were preached. In the afternoon there were large numbers of pleasure seekers, and made the day a big bonanza for the livery men (those who offered horse-drawn wagons for rent). The day passed off very quietly.”
The federal government entered the picture in 1879, declaring its first official day of thanksgiving for November 6, coinciding with the very day that the Manitoba government had also set aside.
The first time Thanksgiving Day was held in honour of the year’s bounty in October — like today’s Thanksgiving Day — was in 1881, when the 20th was proclaimed by both Ottawa and the Manitoba government.
The harvest of that year was indeed bountiful — just over one-million bushels of wheat, nearly 1.3-million bushels of oats, 253,604 bushels of barley and 556,193 bushels of potatoes.
By 1898, the Canadian government was content to have Thanksgiving Day coincide with the American celebration on the last Thursday in November. Canadians weren’t too happy with this date, since the day was too late in the season and too close to Christmas, so the next year Thanksgiving Day was changed once again to October, this time the third Monday of the month.
Thanksgiving Day continued its wanderings on the calendar in the years immediately following the First World War.
The Armistice Day Act of June 4, 1921, merged Thanksgiving with the day to celebrate the end of the war. The act said: “Throughout Canada in each and every year, the Monday in the week in which the 11th day of November shall ... be a legal holiday and shall be kept and observed as such under the name Armistice Day. The holiday commonly called Thanksgiving Day being a day usually appointed in the month of October or November by proclamation ... shall whenever appointed be proclaimed and observed for and on Armistice day.”
The combined celebration survived until 1931, when the two observances were separated with Thanksgiving Day to be held on the second Monday of October. This was the official day until January 31, 1957, when the second Monday of October was permanently set aside by the federal government, the date on which Thanksgiving is still celebrated today.