The History of Thanksgiving
Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1975, Volume 21, Number 1
In the crisp atmosphere of dawn by a sheltered vale on the outskirts of a mid 18th century North American eastern coastal settlement a small flock of Meleagris gallopava (wild turkeys) stirred uneasily at the sound of approaching footsteps. Soon their tough, elastic necks would be unceremoniously slashed open with a razor edged hunting knife and after meticulous preparation the choicest portions of their remains would grace the table of the first official thanksgiving festival in this British possession in North America. And the celebrants of this predominantly British community of Halifax fared sumptuously as they joyfully observed the occasion of the conclusion of the Peace of Paris on February 18, 1763, which turned Canada over to Great Britain.
But the scene of the first formal thanksgiving service in the "New World" was held in Newfoundland, the first colony of the British Empire in 1578. "It was held by a clergyman who accompanied the expedition under Sir Martin Frobisher a noted navigator and explorer who brought the very first English immigrants to settle in the new world. It must have been an impressive albeit a strange ceremony ... Frobisher and his rough sailors no doubt took part in this service although they might not be so much impressed as the new settlers in having reached land again even though the land was strange and their hearts were full of fears and anxieties." (The Ottawa Citizen, November 9, 1928 )
Four years prior to the Peace of Paris celebration the British held, at the capture of Quebec (1759), a service in the Ursuline chapel "to give thanks to Almighty God for victory." The following year a similar service was to celebrate the fall of Montreal.
We are not exactly told when that tradition died out but we do know that further west in Lower Canada (now Quebec) the first thanksgiving was proclaimed on December 22, 1798 and observed on January 10, 1799. It was a celebration of "the signal victory over our enemy and for the manifold and inestimable blessings which our kingdom and provinces have received and continued to receive."
Upper Canada (now Ontario) first proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving on May 17, 1816 and observed it exactly a month and a day later in gratitude to God for the end of the war between Great Britain and Napolean.
But the basic idea of the present Thanksgiving Day the custom of giving thanks for the blessing of an abundant harvest was first made the subject of a proclamation by the Governor General in 1859 and "this may be regarded as the inception of the holiday in Canada. It was held on November 3" wrote W. A. Craick in the Ottawa Journal of October 8, 1964. The proclamations were repeated and the holiday observed in 1860, 1861, 1863, and 1865. Quite some time elapsed before another such day was proclaimed.
Just how much the American festival the observance of the anniversary of the first harvest concluded by the Pilgrim Fathers and their liberty to worship freely influenced the unofficial observance of a day of Thanksgiving in Canada after 1816 we are not sure but we do know by private correspondence that a general thanksgiving and harvest home festival was being "unofficially" observed usually in November by congregations of Protestant assemblies.
The Reverend John Black, minister of Kildonan Presbyterian Church, in an informal letter dated November 7, 1857 to James Ross, (who was in Toronto at the time) son of Alexander Ross, a prominent Winnipeg citizen, mentioned that he was "most happy of your restored health" and followed this comment with the news that Donald, James' friend was in church on Thanksgiving Day implying that it was a recent occurrence.
Another letter to James which was by curious coincidence written on the same day, reveals that Thanksgiving was observed on Thursday, November 5 that year. Jemima Ross penned the following words among others to her older brother in Toronto.
These brief glimpses into the past reveal that the question of the merits of a thanksgiving observance was positively alive in the Protestant community of Manitoba and while this fact may still beg evidence of an official or at least a general observance, it might easily be assumed that the festival was observed by participants outside this fold.
After Confederation, when the four existing eastern provinces were finally united, the first Federal Thanksgiving proclamation was issued on March 1, 1872 in thanks to God for restoring the Prince of Wales to health. (It was actually observed on April 15 following.) The previous year, on the 24th of October the infant province of Manitoba independently issued her first proclamation to observe a day of Thanksgiving for Thursday, November 16 mute testimony of the influence of its traditional observance in that area in previous years.
The historic proclamation stated:
The following year the Reverend George Bryce, a Presbyterian minister and one time President of the Manitoba Historical Society, became a little anxious about the government's intentions regarding the observance of the day due to its comparative tardiness in making a proclamation and upon initiating the support of the other two Protestant churches in the province implored the Administrator of the Province, Chief Justice Morris regarding the possibility of observing another day of Thanksgiving. It read:
The government speedily responded by issuing a proclamation on November 15 to observe a day of Thanksgiving on December 5. It was the latest date in the year that that an official day of Thanksgiving was ever observed in Manitoba.
A diligent search of the Manitoba Gazette failed to yield any thanksgiving proclamations for the three following years. There was, however, a day of "humiliation and prayer" proclaimed on July 21, 1875 for the people of Manitoba to humble themselves and supplicate God to stay a locust plague of unprecedented proportions. Excellent crops were being ravaged for the third year in a row and the 1875 invasion proved to be most devastating. Whether or not these facts account for the corresponding absence of a thanksgiving proclamation in those years (if the plague was stayed, there should have been a corresponding day of Thanksgiving) is something to ponder but in 1876 a relatively "plagueless" year the spiritually arid era of public thanklessness came to an official end when the provincial government at long last proclaimed on October 24 another day of Thanksgiving to be observed on November 16. The original 1871 proclamation text was used again as in 1872.
In 1877 a day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed for Thursday, November 22 when it corresponded quite closely with the date for the American festival for the first time in Manitoba. The following year it was proclaimed for observance on December 4 another late date as in 1872.
In 1879, when the Federal government proclaimed the first official day of general thanksgiving Manitoba again (inadvertently?) exhibited her (traditional?) youthful independence by politely ignoring the federal proclamation text and proclaiming its own day of Thanksgiving for November 6 perhaps by coincidence the same date as was federally proclaimed by using its own original proclamation text of 1871. This procedure was, curiously, repeated the following year although the date proclaimed November 3 corresponded with the federally proclaimed date for a thanks-giving observance.
That this (the corresponding dates) indicated a very gradual softening of attitude on the part of the Manitoba government and not just a coincidence is evidenced by the fact that on October 13, 1881 the provincial executives approved and used in their own proclamation part of the federal proclamation text and the date set for the observance of Thanksgiving which was October 20the first official Thanksgiving to be observed that early. The text, which the federal government had been using since 1879 significantly designates the day as a "day of General Thanksgiving" as distinguished from a proclamation of a special thanksgiving observance as was the case in 1872 when they gave thanks for the restoration of the Prince of Wales to perfect health.
"Bountiful Harvest" was hardly an exaggeration in this description of the yield for 1881. From 51,293 acres of wheat, 1,033,673 bushels were harvested; the amount of oats, barley and potatoes was 1,270,268 bushels, 253,604 bushels and 556,193 bushels respectively. Not bad for an area that was little more than a trackless wilderness a decade and a half before.
The following two years no proclamation was issued. Whether this was because they felt that a federal proclamation was sufficient or because of the devastating floods that large areas of Manitoba experienced in those two years is a matter of speculation.
In 1885 and 1886 proclamations were issued using the federal text. However, in 1887, in spite of this assurance of loyalty, the Hon. James Cox Aikens, Governor-General, found it necessary for some curious reason to notify by letter through the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba the Manitoba government of its intentions to proclaim Thursday the 17th day of November as a national day of Thanksgiving. The letter, addressed to Hon. John Norquay, the provincial secretary said:
Of course, Manitoba obliged the Governor General and proclaimed the appointed date.
If Canada experienced a "bountiful harvest" in 1887, Manitoba received a lion's share of it like 14,000,000 bushels of wheat; 5,780,000 bushels of oats; 2,250,000 bushels of barley and 2,750,000 bushels of potatoes.
So if there was any apprehension experienced by the governor general and the federal government over the possibility of Manitoba declaring its own day of Thanksgiving or not declaring one at all, it was not because Manitoba wasn't blessed in 1887. A better explanation of the purpose of their special letter is that a special thanksgiving was observed in 1887 on June 21 to mark the 5th anniversary of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne (repeated a decade later on the 60th anniversary). But the people of Canada were fond of the autumn harvest home festival and so the Governor General probably found it appropriate to remind Manitoba of the governments desire to abide by the tradition irregardless of the special thanksgiving on June 21.
By 1898, the federal proclamation text had been slightly altered and shortened and it set Thursday, November 24 aside as a day of Thanksgiving. Since this is the last Thursday in November, it corresponded exactly as it had done for a number of years with the day set for the American festival. This is unquestionable evidence of American influence on Canada and the irresistible temptation to imitate the customs of our neighbors.
But not for long. "It was found to be too late and too near Christmas", wrote Anne Foster in "High Days and Holidays in Canada". The following year, 1899, the date was changed to October and generally set for a Thursday. Then, probably in order to gain a long weekend out of the observance it was set for a Monday the third Monday in October which was the first time it had ever been officially observed on the second day of the week.
After World War I Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed for the Monday of the week in which Armistice Day occurred. Then, by the Armistice Day Act, June 4, 1921 Thanksgiving Day and Armistice Day became emerged.
"Throughout Canada in each and every year, the Monday in the week in which the 11th day of November shall occur ... shall be a legal holiday and shall be kept and observed as such under the name of Armistice Day. The holiday commonly called Thanksgiving Day being a day usually appointed in the month of October or November by proclamation as a day of general thanksgiving, shall whenever appointed be proclaimed and observed for and on Armistice Day."
So that year November 7 and the following year November 6 Armistice Day was Thanksgiving Day.
However, in 1931 the act establishing Armistice Day was amended and the name of the holiday changed to Remembrance Day and Thanksgiving Day was once again yearly proclaimed as an October holiday. In fact, September 12, 1931 was the first time since World War I that Thanksgiving day was proclaimed for the second Monday in October (which was October 12) and with the exception of 1935 (when the proclamation to observe it on October 14 was revoked due to the election on that day and changed to Thursday, October 24) it was proclaimed yearly for observance on the second Monday of October for 26 consecutive years.
January 31, 1957 is a historic date as it relates to the history of Thanks-giving Day in Canada. For on that date the second Monday of October was permanently appointed to be observed as day of general thanksgiving each year. It said:
This year we are celebrating the 104th anniversary of the first officially proclaimed general thanksgiving in Manitoba and the 103rd anniversary of the first officially proclaimed special thanksgiving for all of Canada.
Page revised: 20 July 2009Back to top of page