Today, October 12, 2015, is officially Thanksgiving Day in Canada.
Across this vast stretch of diverse geography called Canada — from Newfoundland to British Columbia, and north to the frozen Arctic — families and friends will crowd around tables groaning with good things to eat. They will celebrate the bounty of our land.
The good things will include roast turkey, homemade dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, various pickles, green beans, squash, salads, and all this topped off with pumpkin pie — and who can guess what other desserts.
As a Canadian holiday, where and when did Thanksgiving begin? Why do we celebrate each year on the second Monday of October? And, does Canadian Thanksgiving flow in some deep way from the Christian faith?
Martin Frobisher, the English fortune hunter and daring explorer is credited with celebrating the first “thanksgiving” on this continent on August 31, 1578. The celebration was observed on Newfoundland, attended by 100 of Frobisher’s men who were sailing with him on an exploratory expedition.
Frobisher was on his third and final attempt to find an Arctic passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. This, it was hoped, would make shipping routes to Asia shorter. On that third expedition he reached the southern end of Canada’s Baffin Island.
That original celebration of Thanksgiving was intentionally a Christian event. Frobisher, this rather rough character, wished to offer thanks to God after having survived storms and icebergs while crossing the northern Atlantic Ocean from England to the New World.
The Reverend Robert Wolfall, one of his party, led the service and served communion. The celebration is reputed to be the first of its kind on this continent.
But why do we who live in Canada celebrate Thanksgiving as early as October, and especially why so precisely on the second Monday of that month? There may be any of three reasons.
Celebrating Thanksgiving on that occasion though likely a first for North America was not a newly imagined event. In Europe celebratory thanksgiving feasts marking the end of harvest were common. They were elevated occasions to give thanks to God for his gift of abundance.
These observances were carried out there in the month of October. Thus, it may be that tradition dictated that the same month should be followed for celebrations here in the New World.
The second reason given is that Canada must harvest its crops earlier than our good neighbors to the south, and November here would be too late, risking weather complications.
These two reasons notwithstanding, Thanksgiving had often been observed in Europe during November, before the turn of the Twentieth Century. How, then, did it get moved to the second Monday of October?
After the World Wars, the day to honor the nation’s war dead — called Armistice or Remembrance Day — was set for November 11. But the celebration of Thanksgiving kept complicating matters by falling in the same week as Remembrance Day.
The Canadian Parliament took the matter in hand. On January 31, 1957, it announced that Thanksgiving would be celebrated across the land on the second Monday of October, though for the Atlantic provinces this would be at the region’s discretion.
Parliament ordered that Thanksgiving would be “a day of general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada had been blessed” — sounding a distinctly Christian note.
But the origin of the idea of a special time of year to give God thanks for his providential care manifested by a bountiful harvest goes farther back than parliamentary laws or even Martin Frobisher’s original feast.
The Hebrew people had their three major annual feasts, the second being the Feast of Weeks, also called the Feast of Harvest and the “day of firstfruits.” (Exodus 23:16; 34:22) It was marked by a holy assembly and sacrifices were offered to thank God for an abundant harvest.
It’s obvious the celebration of Thanksgiving is rooted deeply in history. But where will all this history point us, given the secularizing trends of modern culture that are attempting to remove from our national consciousness whatever prompts us to honor God’s presence and activity in public life?
On this day, all who honor God, to whatever degree, or in whatever manner, should commit to the renewing of the spiritual aspect of Thanksgiving in the homes of believers all across Canada: (1) read Psalm 91 or 96 around the festive table; (2) review between courses the specific blessings of the harvest season for this very year; to do so honors the benevolence of our God.
(3) Best of all, borne along by this day’s awakened spiritual impulses, let us renew our intention to let the Thanksgiving motif spill out of us and spread across the whole of the year. Our troubled world needs more irrepressibly thankful Christians.
Photo credit: Faith Goble (via flickr.com)