The most obvious difference between Canadian Thanksgiving and the American version is the date when each is celebrated. Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October (October 10 this year), while American Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November (November 24 this year).
The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. The feast — today it has become more myth than fact — lasted three days, and was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. Native Americans, the Wampanoag, have a different version of events that didn’t include a feast of thanksgiving, but a celebration of a mutually beneficial peace treaty and a trade pact.
According to James W. Baker, (Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday): “The American holiday’s true origin was the New England Calvinist Thanksgiving. Never coupled with a Sabbath meeting, the Puritan observances were special days set aside during the week for thanksgiving and praise in response to God’s providence.”
National Thanksgiving in the U.S. was first proclaimed by George Washington in 1789, and was made an official national holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln.
While it is true that the first Thanksgivings in the U.S. sometimes honoured other events, such as a landing by settlers, a successful harvest has always been the dominate theme — an annual harvest festival became a regular affair in New England in the late 1660s — which isn’t the case in Canada’s early historical tradition.
The first Canadian Thanksgiving was celebrated by Martin Frobisher and his men in 1578 in what is today’s Nunavut. What Frobisher was seeking was the fabled Northwest Passage and gold in Canada’s Eastern Arctic. George Best, who sailed with Frobisher on his three voyages, wrote that Frobisher celebrated North America’s first Thanksgiving along Frobisher Bay, an event that happened 43 years before the Pilgrims in the U.S. Rev. Wolfall “... made unto them (Frobishers’ men) a goodly sermon (on July 31, 1578), exhorting them especially to be thankful to God for their strange and miraculous deliverance in those dangerous places ...”
Samuel de Champlain beat the Pilgrims, too, in celebrating Thanksgiving. Starting in 1604, he began a custom of celebrating the harvest with annual feasts in New France. Champlain was probably more thankful that his party was alive, as an expedition a year earlier, led by Pierre du Guay de Monts that stayed at Ile St. Croix in Acadia, ended in disaster. Of 80 colonists, 36 died of scurvy, a deficiency of vitamin C caused by an extremely poor diet, and another 20 barely survived. The lesson was that no harvest equaled no survival.
Champlain and de Monts moved the colonists to Port-Royal, which had futile soil, good fishing and friendly indigenous neighbours.
In 1763, the citizens of Halifax commemorated the end of the Seven Years War as a Thanksgiving Day.
In Manitoba,Thanksgiving Day was first observed on November 16, 1872, when a provincial government proclamation was issued. The use of a such a proclamation was a tradition that persisted until the Manitoba government began following the lead of Ottawa. But just three years after the initial Manitoba proclamation was issued, for the first and only time in the province’s history, extreme circumstances resulted in the cancellation of Thanksgiving Day. The presence of a Biblical plague of locusts (an insect species now extinct in North America) in 1875 had killed off any justification for declaring a day of giving thanks for the harvest.
“There was, however, a day of ‘humiliation and prayer’ proclaimed on July 21, 1875, for the people of Manitoba to humble themselves and supplicate God to stay a locust plague of unprecedented proportions” (The History of Thanksgiving, by A.D. “Tony” Doerksen, Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1975).
In 1887, two separate days — June 21 and November 17 — were designated for thanksgiving. In the first instance, it was decided that Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee would be a “form of thanksgiving and prayer to the Almighty God upon the completion of fifty years of Her Majesty’s reign” over the British Empire, which, of course, included Canada.
It may have been because Manitobans had already thought they had celebrated their Thanksgiving for the year that James Cox Aikens, the governor general of Canada, found it necessary to notify the Manitoba government of its intentions to proclaim Thursday the 17th day of November as a national day of Thanksgiving. Manitoba eventually obliged the governor general and proclaimed the appointed date for thanksgiving.
Early Thanksgiving Days in Manitoba could be held in October, November or December. Basically, whenever the urge arose by the provincial government.
The first national offering of thanksgiving was held when the federal government entered the picture in 1879, declaring “a day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed,” for November 6, which by coincidence corresponded to the day the Manitoba government had also set aside.
The first official Thanksgiving Day in October — like today’s Thanksgiving Day — was in 1881, when the 20th was proclaimed by both Ottawa and the Manitoba government.
Thanksgiving Day continued its wanderings on the calendar in the years 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 ... usually appointed in the month of October or November by proclamation ... shall whenever appointed be proclaimed and observed for and on Armistice day.”
Thus, the day was more a thanksgiving about the end of the massive bloodletting of the First World War than a national observance of a bountiful harvest.
The combined celebration survived until 1931, when the two observances were separated with Thanksgiving Day to be held on the second Monday of October.
On January 31, 1957, the second Monday of October was permanently set aside by the federal government, the date on which Thanksgiving is still widely celebrated in Canada.
If you’re looking at another difference between the two holidays, one is that in the U.S., Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has become the biggest shopping splurge of the year. Meanwhile in Canada, the busiest shopping day is Boxing Day.