Images of pilgrims with buckle shoes and black hats, of turkeys and pumpkins, often with the Mayflower anchored offshore, help to perpetuate the notion that Thanksgiving has its roots in American history. However, there is evidence that the celebration actually had its beginnings much earlier. It shouldn’t be surprising that no one country or culture has the corner on expressing gratitude.
Greeks, Egyptians and Romans practiced some sort of celebration at the completion of harvest. Various religions prescribe feasts and offerings to express both thankfulness for provisions and recognition that we cannot take credit for all the good gifts we receive. From earliest biblical records, there are consistent reminders to acknowledge God as the giver of life and all that is needed for sustenance.
Europeans who settled in North America probably brought with them the practice of a thanksgiving celebration in October. Some maintain that the first documented thanksgiving observance in North America was one led by English adventurer Martin Frobisher in 1578 in what is now known as Newfoundland. He gave thanks for a safe ocean journey. That would place the first Canadian Thanksgiving 43 years before the pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The harvest celebration which early American settlers practiced was probably a secular one, and there is some doubt whether there were any Pilgrims present.
Others dispute the Frobisher account. Peter Stevens, in a work cited on the York University website, gives another perspective. In “A Wealth of Meanings,” Stevens indicates that Ontario Protestant clergymen “felt it their moral and historical duty to shape the Canadian identity in the Christian mould and saw the adoption of the Thanksgiving holiday as a way to do this.” From 1921 to 1931, Armistice Day — now Remembrance Day — and Thanksgiving Day coincided, but the two events evoked such diverging emotions that it became evident they needed to be separated. The date was moved several times, but on January 31, 1957, the Canadian government set the second Monday in October as “a day of general thanksgiving to almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.” Perhaps the variety of claims to the origins of Thanksgiving Day indicates a widespread need to express gratitude.
The practice of giving thanks for abundance – for good harvests whether in field, garden or on fishing grounds, should not be relegated just to one day. If we are truly thankful, every day can be Thanksgiving. Enjoy wild rice or yams, apple pie or pumpkin pie, turkey, ham, bison or beef roast or even a peanut butter sandwich. Gratitude will improve enjoyment of any meal. Happy Thanksgiving!
Text by P. Gerbrandt