History of Thanksgiving

Michael Emmanuel

Canadians often discuss what it is that makes us Canadian. We have a hard time identifying ourselves because it seems there’s nothing substantial that makes us us. Usually sprinkled throughout these conversations are comments about Canadian tolerance, acceptance, and the multi-cultural nature of Canadian society. Somehow it becomes a virtue to celebrate moral and political relativism.

Often the conversation deteriorates, rather quickly, into jokes about not being American. (As if not being American makes you Canadian, just like not being Catholic makes you Protestant.) Canadians aren’t conditioned into accepting some national myth of divine favor and exceptionalism like Americans are. Canadians, so the story goes, are allowed to have diverse identities stemming from a host of cultural and religious origins. And we are darned proud of celebrating Baal and Asherah right alongside Jesus Christ.

No matter how upsetting it is to the enemies of liberty, you can’t just kick Christianity out of the Canadian identity. It’s in the very blood and soil of our nation, and it’s the bond that really makes us Canadians. Thanksgiving is an annual reminder of that fact.

Many people might think that Thanksgiving Day is an American import, something carried over by American Loyalists who moved to Canada around the time of America’s War for Independence (commonly misnamed the American Revolution). Certainly many of us have heard the story, almost myth-like in its quality.

It was September of 1620. Some English Puritan pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower for the New World to escape religious persecution under King James I. After a sixty-six day journey, they landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. There the settlers determined to enter into a covenant with God in establishing their new home:

“Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid…”

But the winter was cruel to the pilgrims, and many of the settlers were forced to remain aboard the ship throughout the winter as their companions succumbed to malnutrition and disease and many eventually died. Spring came and favorable weather allowed the survivors to begin building their settlement with the aid of two Native Americans who miraculously, it appeared, knew English. By harvest, the Puritan settlers were established, and in late November they gathered together to celebrate God’s guidance and protection: the first Thanksgiving.

Two years later, after a failed communist experiment nearly led the plantation back into starvation, Governor William Bradford established a system of private property and the colony once more thrived. The pilgrims gathered again to give thanks to God after Bradford delivered his famous Thanksgiving Proclamation:

“Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables… [and] has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.

Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the daytime, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”

From thereon out, Thanksgiving became an established part of the American experience.

Now while the story may have its charm, it’s not a Canadian story. Our history doesn’t so closely define us with covenants made with the Almighty God. Thanksgiving is something we borrowed from America, but we divorced it of its religious connotations and made it a secular holiday for everyone. Besides, whatever your views on Thanksgiving, it’s an American import and has nothing to do with the real Canadian identity. Or so many people might think. But actually, historical precedent says Canadians practiced Thanksgiving first.

In 1578, forty years before Plymouth Rock, the British explorer Martin Frobisher sailed the Canadian North in search of the Northwest Passage. Sailing around present day Nunavut, his fleet of 15 ships suffered freak storms and impassible ice, even losing one of the ships, forcing the voyagers back to their anchorage in Frobisher Bay. There the surviving explorers gathered to celebrate communion: “ye first signe, scale, and confirmation of Christes name, death and passion ever knowen in all these quarters.” Robert Wolfall, “preached a godly sermon” reminding the men to be thankful to God for their miraculous deliverance in those dangerous parts.

In 1604, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived in Canada and celebrated a feast of thanks with their Native Canadian neighbors, and even established the “Order of Good Cheer.”

 From its beginnings, even as the explorers were mapping the territory and establishing the first settlements in Canada, just as in America, men and women were setting aside days of thanks to remember the work of God in their lives – His protection, His guidance, and His Providence over their own lives and the course of history. God is as much a part of Canada’s identity as it is of America’s. The official holiday has been celebrated since 1879, and in 1957 the Parliament of Canada issued a proclamation which declared that the second Monday in October was to be:

“A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest which Canada has been blessed…”

Canada has a definite identity. It’s not something borrowed from America, although it is something shared. From our inception we were a nation defined by our Lord who has “dominion from sea to shining sea.” Thanksgiving celebrations are just one more reminder of that fact.

Next time you hear your fellow Canadians begin a conversation about who we are as Canadians, or next time an American friend asks you what it means to be Canadian, confidently assert that to be a Canadian means to be a Christian. It means to recognize that God keeps our land glorious and free. And give thanks that God blessed us with that privilege, for it is when we forget this fact that we cease to be Canadians. It is when we forget this that we shall no longer be glorious and free… But I’m afraid my words are already falling on deaf ears.