Thanksgiving

3 January 1850, 15 April 1872 and 6 November 1879

Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada on the second Monday of October. Traditionally, it is the time to give thanks to the Almighty for the year’s harvest. And, indeed, it is still so celebrated in homes and churches across the country. However, in today’s secular times, the religious aspect of the holiday has diminished. Instead, the long Thanksgiving weekend provides a wonderful opportunity for family get-togethers between the Labour Day weekend in early September and the Christmas and Boxing Day holidays in December. For many Canadians, the Thanksgiving weekend is also traditionally the time for closing up cottages and camps for the winter, turning off their water, draining the pipes and clearing out any food in pantries that might attract both little and big critters.  

Turkey farm near Ottawa, circa 1920, Library and Archives Canada, 3360573.

The Canadian Thanksgiving shares the same rituals and traditions as its American counterpart. Both holidays focus on family, food, and sports. The customary Thanksgiving feast in both countries features turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce with pumpkin pie for dessert. However, the Canadian holiday is roughly six weeks before the American Thanksgiving, consistent with its earlier harvest season.

While most people, at least in North America, are somewhat familiar with the story of the first American Thanksgiving (which it wasn’t) when pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts and members of the Wampanoag First Nation sat down to celebrate a bountiful harvest in the autumn of 1621, the first thanksgiving in the territory that would later become known as Canada is less well known. It had nothing to do with the harvest but rather refers to the thanks given to the Almighty by the British explorer Martin Frobisher and his crew for their safe arrival in 1578 in what is now Frobisher Bay in Nunavut. This occurred forty-three years before the Pilgrims broke bread with their Indigenous neighbours.

Turkey and cranberry sauce, already a tradition in 1907, Ottawa Journal, 30 October 1907.

In more modern times, three dates stand out in the history of Canadian Thanksgiving, and none of them are in October. These are 3 January 1850, 15 April 1872 and 6 November 1879. Only the last is related to giving thanks for the harvest.

The first refers to a Royal Proclamation by Lord Elgin, the Governor General of the Province of Canada, issued in mid-December 1849, announcing that Thursday, 3 January 1850 would be a day of “General Thanksgiving to Almighty God” to thank Him for his mercies, especially in delivering Canadians from “the grievous disease [cholera] which many places in the Province had been lately visited.”   

The announcement came after press reports of a comparable holiday recommended that year by US President Taylor. The Globe newspaper noted approvingly that the president had “recommended” rather than “ordered” the public to celebrate the event as a recommendation was consistent with religious freedom whereas a command was not. However, it added that this formula was “marvellous proof of republican selfishness to guard the privileged class with scrupulosity against the least encroachment of arbitrary power and yet suffer the bondage of the most foul mental and physical slavery to rest upon millions.” It added “in a country where there is extensive domestic slavery it is strangely inconsistent.”

Businesses throughout the Province of Canada were closed on that cold January Thanksgiving Day, with special services held in churches. According to the Globe, services were well attended “as on a Sabbath,” and sermons were given that were appropriate to the occasion. Unfortunately, a report on how Ottawa celebrated that first Thanksgiving is not available.

While days of Thanksgiving were subsequently sporadically organized by colonial governments in British North America, the first official Dominion-wide Thanksgiving Day was held on Monday, 15 April 1872. The occasion was to give thanks for the recovery of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, from a serious bout of typhus that he had contracted while staying as a guest at country estate in North Yorkshire. Another guest at the estate had died from the disease, and for a time, there were serious concerns about whether the prince would recover. Typhus was the disease that had killed his father, Prince Albert, ten years earlier.

In Britain, a national day of Thanksgiving had been called for 27 February 1872. But in Canada, only New Brunswick had followed suit, much to the embarrassment of many. The Ottawa Daily Citizen opined that “this great national event, in which all British subjects must be deeply concerned, has been allowed to pass unhonored and forgotten.” This oversight was quickly rectified.

On 15 April 1872, commerce was suspended across Canada, including in Ottawa, with Divine services held to thank God for the Prince’s deliverance. The Citizen wrote: The loyalty of the Canadian people, which only requires an event of this kind to call forth an enthusiastic response, found fitting expression in every pulpit in the city, and in joining prayer of thanksgiving for the recovery of the Prince of Wales the people of the Dominion felt that they were welding another link of love to bind them to the altar and the throne of their forefathers.”

All denominations held services. The Methodists met together at the Metcalfe Street Church. The Presbyterians prayed in the Bank Street Church, while the Roman Catholics met at Notre Dame Cathedral. Governor General Lord Lisgar and his wife celebrated at the Bishop’s Chapel, which held a joint service with the congregation of Christ’s Church. The Bishop’s Chapel, located at the corner of Somerset and Elgin Streets, became known as the Church of St. John the Evangelist in 1874. The Garrison Artillery supplied the Governor General’s honour guard and a band. The Bishop of Ontario also attended the service.

The first, Canada-wide, harvest Thanksgiving Day occurred on Thursday, 6 November 1879 with that day set aside by the Governor in Council as a day of general thanksgiving. The proclamation urged every province in the Confederation to unite “in special prayer and praise for the many mercies vouchsafed during the past year” as an expression of the nation’s gratitude.

Thanksgiving sales, another tradition, Ottawa Citizen, 10 October 1890.

In Ottawa, principal places of business were closed and the streets “wore a holiday appearance, according to the Ottawa Daily Citizen. There were special Thanksgiving services in all Protestant churches with appropriate sermons. Attendance was considered “unusually large.”

At St. Andrew’s, Rev. Gordon’s sermon drew upon Psalm 136 “O, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good.” He said that the congregation was united with “our fellow countrymen from the Atlantic to Pacific.”

At Christ’s Church, the venerable Archdeacon Lauder urged his congregation “to beware the great sin of ingratitude.” The Archdeacon said that the poor were poor because God caused them to be poor for some reason of His own. (This harsh viewpoint was very common at this time.) He argued that there were two types of poor—the “strolling begging poor” and the “silent suffering poor who endure almost to death before they ask [for help].” Lauder had little sympathy for the first kind. The collection for the day was given to the Ladies Benevolent Society for the relief of the poor of the parish. Lauder assured his listeners that monies would not be spent on people until they had been visited and enquiries made into why they were poor.

Rev. Dr. Wood of the Congressional Church expressed gratitude for Canada’s bountiful harvest. He also said that the country had the blessing of peace, good governance, free schools, free press, reviving commerce, and general progress. The collection was raised for the Protestant Hospital.

Rev. Mr. Cameron of the Baptist Tabernacle contended that prosperity of a Christian nation is only guaranteed by being faithful to God. The recent five years of “hard times” experienced by Christian nations was due to people forgetting that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.” Fortunately, God’s lesson—the hard times—was nearly over and prosperity would soon return. He added that Canadians had many reasons to be thankful, including a bountiful harvest, the opening of the Northwest [to the detriment of Indigenous peoples living there, one should note], prospects for returning prosperity, Canada being in a quiet corner of the British Empire, and for being alive to celebrate Thanksgiving. Like the Congressional Church, the Tabernacle’s collection was donated to the Protestant Hospital.

One notable absence among the denominations celebrating Thanksgiving was the Roman Catholic Church. The new government-announced celebration was not part of the Church’s liturgical calendar. The Feast of St. Michael, or Michaelmas, on 29 September, or the Feast of St. Andrew, or Andermass, on 30 November, were already celebrated in many Catholic churches as harvest thanksgivings, depending on where you lived.

For roughly the next twenty years, Canadian Thanksgiving was celebrated on a Thursday in November. In 1899, it was switched to a Thursday in October. Starting in 1908, it was moved to a Monday in October. There was still not fixed day, with each Thanksgiving Day being annually proclaimed by the government.

The switch of month from November to October was generally viewed to be appropriate given the early start of winter in some parts of Canada. The Ottawa Journal opined that the “Dominion Government might remember the tendencies and diversities of its native climes when the date of Thanksgiving is being chosen.” It added that October was almost a winter month in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Northern Ontario. As for choosing a Monday over a Thursday, the Journal didn’t think it would lessen the religious significance of Thanksgiving in Canada. It also argued that choosing a Monday was convenient for people. A three-day weekend made family reunions possible.

After World War I, Thanksgiving was celebrated concurrently with Armistice Day, which was fixed by statute to be the Monday of the week in which 11 November fell. The holiday became known as Remembrance Day. However, in 1931, the two observances were separated, with Thanksgiving Day reverting to the second Monday in October (except in 1935 when Thanksgiving was shifted a week later owing to a general election). The date of the holiday was officially proclaimed annually by the federal government. It wasn’t until 1957 that the holiday was fixed by legislation to be the second Monday in October, thereby obviating the need for the government to make annual proclamations.

Sources:

Canada Gazette, 1849. “A Proclamation,” 15 December.

Canadian Heritage, 2008. Thanksgiving and Remembrance Day.

[The] Globe, 1849. “The Cholera – National Humiliation,” 26 July.

—————, 1849. “National Thanksgiving,” 18 December.

—————, 1850. “The Thanksgiving Day,” 5 January.

Miller, Jennifer, 2018, “The Catholic Tradition of Harvest Feasts at Thanksgiving,” Catholic Culture, 24 November.

Nagy, Alison, 2018. “The History of Thanksgiving in Canada,” Canada’s History, 4 October.

Ottawa Citizen, 1957. “Permanent Dates Given Two Holidays,” 1 February.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1872. “The National Thanksgiving in Britain,” 27 February.

————————-, 1872. “The Thanksgiving in England,” 2 March.

————————–, 1872. “Thanksgiving,” 16 April.

————————–, 1879. “Thanksgiving Day,” 8 November.

Ottawa Journal, 1907. “Thanksgiving Day,” 17 September.

——————-, 1909. “Thanksgiving,” 23 October.

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