It should be no surprise to know that both Canada and the United States share a number of similar traditions and past times. Both celebrate a national holiday to commemorate independence, both celebrate Christmas, (as do a number of other nations) and both celebrate the secular holiday of Thanksgiving. While the Canadian thanksgiving occurs earlier, it’s history and origins are very similar to its cousins to the south. In fact, both nations owe its Thanksgiving Day traditions to it’s indigenous peoples.
Thanksgiving for both countries can trace its origins to both nations Indians. Whether they be Native Americans in the United States, or Aboriginals in Canada, both have long standing traditions of celebrating their harvests and bountiful crops at the end of each harvest season and before the coming winter months. The tradition of Thanksgiving among Native Americans and Aboriginals is one that goes back centuries before the arrival of Europeans to North America. Thanksgiving in Canada owes it’s origins to Martin Frobisher who in trying to discover and navigate a northern passage to the Pacific Origin, declared a day of thanksgiving for his safe return after an arduous journey through the Northwest Passage. Upon his return, he held a ceremony of thanks for his survival. Canada’s first thanksgiving was therefore held in 1578 in what is now referred to as Newfoundland. It is one of the first thanksgivings held in North America by European settlers. Frobisher was later knighted and had an inlet named in his honor called “Frobisher Bay”. However, the first ever documented European led thanksgiving was actually held further south, and 13 years earlier in St. Augustine Florida by Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Contrary to popular belief, neither Roanoke nor Jamestown in Virginia, or even Quebec City in Canada, are the oldest cities in North America. That title belongs to St. Augustine. It may also hold the distinction of being the birth place of Thanksgiving in the United States, although several dispute this claim. One claim that can not be disputed is how most Americans view the very essence of thanksgiving. For Americans, the holiday is tied to Native Americans helping English survive a brutal winter in Plymouth Massachusetts in 1621. It is this event that is the definitive moment in American Thanksgiving lore. When the English arrived on the Mayflower from Europe, and with several of their countrymen dead, they faced the harsh and brutal reality of trying to survive the coming winter months. Without any sustenance of any kind, the Native Americans showed the settlers how to hunt and harvest food. The feast lasted several days and helped save numerous lives. In 1914, a painting entitled “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” was done by Jennie A. Brownscombe in 1914 to commemorate the event. It is generally looked upon as the definitive depiction of American thanksgiving.
As time passed, many variations of Thanksgiving was held and at different periods. However, not every year had a traditional Thanksgiving day celebration. That is until President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. In the middle of the civil war, Lincoln decided that Thanksgiving would be held on the final Thursday of November. From 1863 on, every year since then there has been a celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States. It was only until 1939, when faced with five Thursdays in that year’s November, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the Fourth Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving Day. Up and until today, this has been the official Thanksgiving day in the United States. Along with this declaration has been the adoption of the official beginning of the holiday season. It essentially kicks off the countdown to Christmas on December 25th.
Canada follows its big brother to the south.
Not to be outdone, but perhaps late to the dance, Canada declared its own day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October. On January 31, 1957, an official declaration from Canada’s parliament stated it is a “Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed”. Perhaps because Canada’s winters are far more severe, or simply because of their need to be a little different from their cousins to the south, it was decided that Thanksgiving in Canada would be to commemorate the end of their shorter harvest season. However, like the United States, Canada itself has a number of football games on TV to celebrate their national holiday. In Canada, it’s called the CFL (Canadian Football League) and its annual football games are double headers referred to as the “Thanksgiving Day Classic”. It’s a small league of course with a smaller population, but like its cousins to the south, Canadians also have a love of football. While in the United States it’s a little more grandiose with parades and a number of college and NFL games, it still resonates with Canadians as a day to enjoy family and loved ones.
While there is no definitive moment commemorating Canadian Thanksgiving, as there was in Plymouth Massachusetts, Canadians nonetheless take great pride in their national holiday. However, there is a growing sentiment that both holidays should be on the same day. When talking with Canadians, they don’t typically attribute their thanksgiving to Martin Frobisher, or to any one particular event. They simply give thanks to both life and liberty. While they may not use these exact words, like in the United States, Canadians nonetheless associate their Thanksgiving with being grateful for all they have. Perhaps this reason alone is enough to rejoice in their similarities and uniqueness from other nations.