Be Thankful and Share your Good Fortune, this Thanksgiving

Posted by martin.parnell |

My wife and I are currently hosting some visitors from England and, today, they will experience their first Canadian Thanksgiving. 

I decided to find out just where this annual tradition originated and discovered that the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving are more closely connected to the traditions of Europe than of the United States. 

Long before Europeans settled in North America, festivals of thanks and celebrations of harvest took place in Europe in the month of October. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “The very first Thanksgiving celebration in North America took place in 1578 in Canada when Martin Frobisher, an explorer from England, came in search of the Northwest Passage. He wanted to give thanks for his safe arrival to the New World. That means the first Thanksgiving in Canada was celebrated 43 years before the pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts! 

Another reason for Canadian Thanksgiving arriving earlier than its American counterpart is that Canada is geographically further north than the United States, causing the Canadian harvest season to arrive earlier than the American harvest season. And since Thanksgiving for Canadians is more about giving thanks for the harvest season than the arrival of pilgrims, it makes sense to celebrate the holiday in October. 

For a few hundred years, Thanksgiving was celebrated in either late October or early November, before it was declared a national holiday in 1879. It was then, that November 6th was set aside as the official Thanksgiving holiday. However, on January 31st, 1957, Canadian Parliament announced that Thanksgiving was to be moved to the second Monday in October. This was because, after the World Wars, Remembrance Day (November 11th) and Thanksgiving kept falling in the same week. 

Thanksgiving is a statutory holiday in most of Canada, with the exceptions being the Atlantic provinces of Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, where it is an optional holiday.

It should also be noted that many favourites foods, on Thanksgiving dinner tables across Canada, trace their origins to food made by First Nations peoples long before Europeans set foot in North America. Besides fish and game such as buffalo, elk and caribou, native feasts held centuries ago at various times of year would have included roasted fowl such as pheasant, grouse and turkey, root vegetables such as turnips, potatoes and carrots, the "three sisters" of corn, beans and squash (including pumpkin), nuts and berries. In some locales, wild rice and cranberries might have been served, and on the coasts and in the far north seafood would have been a staple.

These foods were indigenous to the country, says Chef David Wolfman, a culinary arts professor at George Brown College in Toronto for 20 years. Some may have been unfamiliar to European explorers and settlers but were all adopted of necessity. As they were passed from generation to generation, they became "traditional," he says, explaining this sharing of knowledge and foods is very much in the spirit of First Nations culture.

At the same time as sharing our Thanksgiving meal, we will take the opportunity to give thanks for many other  aspects of our lives, not just the food on our plates, but the friends and neighbours with whom we share it and the good fortune to be healthy and happy.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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