There’s quite a difference between American and Canadian Thanksgivings, as “Pilgrims” were not part of Canada’s history. While Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in November, the colder climate of Canada and the pressure of its citizens dictated that Ottawa declare an earlier date in October.
The first formal Thanksgiving in North America was celebrated by English explorer Martin Frobisher, who undertook three separate voyages to find the fabled Northwest Passage to the Orient. Shipmate George Best wrote that Frobisher was “persuaded of a new and nearer passage to Cataya (China ... (and) that voyage was not only possible by the Northwest, but also as he coulde prove, easie to bee performed.”
Sailing north from Resolution Island, at the south tip of Baffin Island, Frobisher declared that a “forlande, with great gutte, bay, or passage, deviding as it were two mayne lands or continents asunder (Asia and North America).”
He really thought Hudson Strait led to the continent of Asia. In reality, he was thousands of kilometres away from China in Canada’s Arctic.
After encountering ship-threatening ice and freak storms, Frobisher held a special service of Thanksgiving for their safe arrival on the shore of what would be named Frobisher’s Bay, praying “that by our Christian studie and endeavor, those barbarous people (the Inuit) trained up in Paganrie and Infidelitie, might be deduced to the knowledge of true religion, and to the hope of salvation in Christ our Redeemer.”
Thinking they had landed on the Asian coast, Frobisher’s men erected a column and cross of stones, planted an ensign, named the hill Mount Warwick after their patron, and, with the noise of a trumpet and “certain prayers, said on their knees that they were taking possession of the land in the name of the mighty princess Elizabeth, Queen of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith (i.e., the Church of England).”
Robert Wolfall, “their minister and preacher, made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for their strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places ...”
Frobisher’s Thanksgiving ceremony occurred in 1578, years prior to the Pilgrim’s at Plymouth Plantation in 1621.
But the roots of Thanksgiving go back to hundreds of years ago. Thanksgiving for a successful harvest dates back to Celtic festivals in Europe. Celtic priests, the Druids of history, officiated at these festivals, which called for their sun god to battle the forces of darkness and winter. The harvest season was so important that its completion marked the end of the Celtic calendar, and was called Samhain, or summer’s end, which the Irish English Dictionary defines as: “All Hallowtide, the feast of the dead in Pagan and Christian Times, signalling the close of the harvest and the initializing of the winter season, lasting until May ...”
In its Christian connotation, the former pagan festival of thanks took on a more sinister aspect and became today’s Hallowe’en.
Farmers in Europe gave thanks for a successful harvest by filling a curved goat’s horn with fruit and grains. The symbol was called a cornucopia, or horn of plenty. The tradition came to Canada with the first European settlers.
Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal) in Nova Scotia was fought over by the French and English. Records for Port Royal in 1710 note that October 10 was a day of Thanksgiving for the return of the town to the English.
In 1793, the citizens of Halifax commemorated the end of the Seven Years War in a similar manner.
Other Thanksgiving days were celebrated, beginning in 1799, but not every year. It was common in subsequent Canadian history to celebrate Thanksgiving whenever inspired and usually for the end of threat to people’s well-being, such as the War of 1812. In Lower Canada (Quebec), the end of the war was celebrated on May 21, 1816, while Upper Canada (Ontario) held its own celebration on June 18 of the same year.
After Manitoba joined the Canada in 1870, the new province followed the same hit-or-miss pattern. The first Thanksgiving in Manitoba was celebrated on November 16, 1871, when Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald issued a proclamation declaring the province had been blessed by “an abundant harvest during the season 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.”
Across Canada, the first thanksgiving was held when the federal government declared a civic holiday on April 5, 1872, to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales. But Manitoba also held another Thanksgiving of its own on December 7, 1872. The federal government entered the picture again in 1879, declaring its first official Thanksgiving Day 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. 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. The next year, Thanksgiving Day was changed once again to October, this time to 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 ... 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. On January 31, 1957, the second Monday of October was permanently set aside by the federal government, the date on which Thanksgiving is still celebrated in Canada.