Sunday, October 10, 2010

# 6 ~ Thanksgiving, Then and Now

When I have American visitors on tours through Toronto, I love explaining to them how Canada is, in many ways, very similiar to the United States.  They can go to a movie, turn on the radio or television, and get much the same culture that they would back home.  But I then expound on all of the subtle differences between Canada and the United States.  We Canadians tend to celebrate these little distinctions, maybe because culturally we are so much like the Americans.  We pronounce and spell our words differently (have you ever noticed that English is not really the same in any two English speaking countries?).  Unlike the Americans, who enshrine all legislative power in one individual, we separate our Head of Government from our Head of State.  I like telling them that one of the main reasons we hold on to our constitutional monarchy is simply because we don't trust our elected officials as much as they do, and that usually gets a curious reaction.

The other subtle difference between us and them, of course, is when, how and why we celebrate our holidays.  The major ones - Christmas, Easter, that kind of thing - are all the same.  The Americans venerate their first president, that rogue and revolutionary, George Washington.  We celebrate Queen Victoria, "the Mother of Confederation", instead.  Not many people are aware that the good old "May two-four" is actually a double holiday.  It commemorates Queen Victoria's birthday, but it is also the official Canadian birthday of the present sovereign.  Our current sovereign's birthday actually falls on April 21st, so we're usually about a month late in throwing her a party.

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that is celebrated on a different date, and for different reasons, in Canada than it is in the United States.  While we celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, they celebrate theirs on the fourth Thursday in November.  Their Thanksgiving is steeped in more religious tradition, whereas ours is more of just a pagan celebration of gathering in the end-of-season harvest.  I'm not going to say that either of the two is any better than the other ... but, seriously, Thanksgiving on a Thursday?  At the end of November?  It seems like a dry run for Christmas.  Which, apparently, is not altogether unintentional, south of the border.  In America, Thanksgiving Thursday is when they all have dinner, and the following day, Friday, is generally accepted as a holiday.  On Friday, everyone goes out and does some advance shopping for Christmas.  Retail America calls this day "Black Friday", which sounds ominous, but the name actually refers to the fact that the day is the single most profitable day of the year for many stores, and the day on which the ink in their ledgers turns from red (indicating a loss) to black (indicating a profit).  Hence "Black Friday".

But, back to our Canadian traditions.  Historically, Canadians inherited Thanksgiving from English festivals at harvest time.  To me, these celebrations have always seemed one part Christian and one part pagan.  There were elements of Christian worship, with special harvest time religious services, which included special hymns and the reading of Biblical passages to praise God for his bounty.  But it also seems very much tied to the land - a sort of "thank you" to a fertile mother nature for seeing us through another year, presumably without too many friends or neighbours dying of starvation.  This kind of celebration has gone on for hundreds of years, or longer in some older cultures.

Today, with a general decline in attendance at Divine Worship of any kind, Thanksgiving has become more of a secular holiday.  Hopefully, though, most people do feel a sense of gratitude as they sit down at the dinner table and gorge themselves (even if they feel regret, afterwards).

Going back through time, various Canadian aboriginal people celebrated a "thanksgiving" of some kind.  These were taking place for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans in North America.  These, too, were often festivals celebrating the bounty of the natural harvest.

With the arrival of the Europeans, there were new days of thanksgiving.  Not all of these were celebrations relating to the harvest; in fact, there have been many diverse reasons why Canadians have come together to be thankful.  In the early days of European exploration, a day of thanksgiving was often observed for the survival of some sort of expedition.  There were national festivals of thanksgiving to celebrate victory in war, or the health of a national leader.  Our regular, annual commemoration of the harvest - and thus, what we think of when we hear the word "thanksgiving" - has only come around in the second half of the twentieth century.

In 1578, English explorer Martin Frobisher through a thanksgiving party when he successfully returned to Newfoundland, after a quest a northern passage to the Pacific Ocean, through the frigid straits of the Canadian Arctic.  His "thanksgiving party" had nothing to do with the harvest, but was thrown because he was so happy to make it back alive.  Frobisher was later knighted, and had an inlet in modern day Nunavut named after him, but he is often as uncredited as possibly the first European in North America to celebrate Thanksgiving, for one reason or another.

THEN : Sir Martin Frobisher, who in 1578 became, quite possibly, the first European to throw a Thanksgiving dinner in North America.  He was grateful to have sailed through the Arctic without freezing to death. 

Around the same time that Frobisher and other Englishmen were exploring the New World, the French had got the same idea.  From about 1604 onwards, the French settlers who struggled along with Samuel de Champlain to set up a fledgling colony in "New France" began having thanksgiving day celebrations.  Those first winters were brutal, and many settlers died of diseases related to malnutrition, like scurvy.  To lift their spirits, the French would hold a day of thanks, to show their gratitude and faith in the Divine for making it through another year.  They even instituted an order of chivalry to add to the festivities.  Referred to in French as "L'Ordre de Bon Temps", or in English as "The Order of Good Cheer", it was recently revived by the government of Nova Scotia as a provincial order.  The purpose of the original order, as read in it's charter, was "to share in the fellowship and good cheer enjoyed among the "nevous noblise" of New France, as they wintered together in Port-Royal, and to revel in the Glory of King Henry IV."  There's nothing like reveling in a bit of glory to help make it through a tough Canadian winter.

NOW : The Medallion of the Order of Good Cheer, which was revived as a Provincial Order in Nova Scotia.  The original order was founded in 1606.
Ultimately, the Seven Years War came to a close, and the British took over France's territory in the New World.  In Britain's dominions throughout North America, there were hopes for peace, and finally, the end of conflict.  But almost immediately, the American Revolution broke out, once again plunging North America into conflict.  Even after the Revolution came to an end, war didn't cease.  In the summer of 1812, the Americans declared war on Britain, and attacked her possessions in Canada.  These included more than one invasion of the Town of York, with the most major one taking place in April of 1813, when American troops landed on the grounds of the Ex, stormed Fort York, and burned down our parliament buildings.

These three conflicts - the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812 - were the major colonial disputes in which Canadians would gain firsthand experience.  In just over fifty years, from the defeat of the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, which ended the War of 1812, Canadians were faced with three great conflicts.  Each time, they prayed for peace, and each time, they gave thanks when they got it.  In April of 1815, when news of the Treaty of Ghent reached Canadian shores, a day of thanksgiving was held to mark "the end of the war with the United States of America, and the restoration of the blessings of Peace".  When Britain's war with Napoleanic France was concluded, there was a day of thanksgiving held in Lower Canada on May 21, 1816.  There were two great outbreaks of cholera, one in 1832, and another in 1834.  In Toronto alone, these two outbreaks wiped out at least one thousand people, and probably more.  Thanksgiving ceremonies were held after each outbreak, to celebrate the "cessation of cholera".  When diseases like cholera and typhus ravaged the population, we naturally blamed the newcomers, and large numbers of immigrants were quaranted on Grosse Isle, on the Saint Lawrence River.  The island turned into the largest burial grounds of victims of the Irish Potato Faminie outside of Ireland.  A thanksgiving day ceremony was held when the end to the Grosse Isle quarantine was announced.

You get the idea.  There were large scale disasters that Canadians thought deserved some kind of religious observance, so after each one, a "Thanksgiving Day" was observed by specific proclamation.  But still, there was no regular, annual Thanksgiving Day, to mark the harvest.  The first Thanksgiving Day after Confederation in 1867 was in 1872, to celebrate the physical recovery of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, the son of Queen Victoria and the future King Edward VII.  Such were our imperial ties that two more Victorian milestones would warrant their own days of Thanksgivings.  These were Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, to commemorate fifty years on the throne in 1887, and her Diamond Jubilee, celebrating sixty years on the throne, in 1897. 

THEN : The official portrait for Queen Victoria`s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.  As opposed to a harvest festival, members of Canada`s Royal Family were offer popular inspirations for various Thanksgiving Days.  In 1887 and 1897, Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving to mark Queen Victoria`s fifty and then sixty years as sovereign.

By 1900, we begun having a Thanksgiving Day every autumn, to celebrate the "blessings of an abundant harvest".  But these were annual proclamations.  Thanksgiving had not yet been established as a set annual tradition, and it was up to the whim of the Federal Government to decree whether or not we would actually get a Thanksgiving Day in any given year. 

It was after the First World War that Thanksgiving Day became associated with "Armistice Day" in Canada.  Armistice Day, held on November 11th, was the precursor to the modern Remembrance Day in Canada.  Armistice Day and Thanksgiving Day were held together and went hand in hand, as a reminder of our bounty but also as a day of gratitude that the First World War was over.  Young Canadians, like soldiers on both sides of the conflict the world over, went into the war thinking that they'd be home within weeks.  Four years later, there were almost 40,000,000 casualties on both sides.  The world was devastated, and the eventual return to peace was cause for a euphoric celebration, not to mention a sense of gratitude. 

Incidentally, the last documented soldier to be killed in World War One was a Canadian soldier, from Falmouth, Nova Scotia, named George Lawrence Price.  He was shot in the heart by a German sniper, while serving in Belgium, at 10:58 a.m., just two-minutes before the ceasefire ending the war came into effect.  There is a certain companionship between remembrance and thanksgiving, so in a way perhaps it's appropriate that the two holidays, Thanksgiving Day and Armistice Day were held together for several years after the end of the First World War.

THEN : George Lawrence Price was a Canadian soldier, and the last soldier on either side to be killed in the First World War.  For a time, the Canadian Thanksgiving Day and Armistice Day (now Remembrance Day) were held together, as one holiday.

THEN : October, 1918, Canadian soldiers attend a religious Service of Thanksgiving in France`s Cambrai Cathedral. After the First World War, Thanksgiving and Remembrance had a long association with one another, until the two holidays were finally split in 1931.

THEN : A Toronto family reads a headline declaring the end of the First World War.

THEN : Armistice Day, 1918, at Queen Street West and Terauley Street (now Bay Street).  From 1921 until 1931, Canada`s Thanksgiving Day and Armistice Day were both celebrated together, on November 11th.

THEN : Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, Queen Street and Yonge Street, Toronto.

THEN : Armistice Day, Toronto, November 11, 1918.

THEN : Canadian soldiers faced disillusionment when they returned home.  This photograph from 1920 shows Canadian veterans of World War One marching in protest on a combined Armistice and Thanksgiving Day.

In 1931, the two holidays of Armistice Day and Thanksgiving were separated.  That year, Armistice Day became Remembrance Day, and Thanksgiving Day become more and more bound as an autumnal festival in commemoration of a bountiful harvest.  Canadians finally settled on celebrating Thanksgiving Day on the second Monday of October, each and every year in 1957.  That year, the Government of Canada proclaimed that there would be "a Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed, to be observed on the second Monday in October."

THEN : By the 1930s, Toronto`s prominent Jarvis family had steeped a tradition of holding a traditional English hunt on Thanksgiving Day.  This photograph from about 1930 shows Aemilius Jarvis, far right, leading out the Thanksgiving Day hunt.  Jarvis was a noted Canadian businessman and sailor.  He helped to establish the Canadian Navy during the First World War, and worked for King George V as a spy in the court of Czar Nicholas II in 1915.  A blight on his later career took place when he was convicted of trying to commit fraud against Ontario`s provincial government.  Though he actually served jail time, he professed innocence for the rest of his life. 

THEN : Jarvis family Thanksgiving Day hunt in the 1930s.  On the right is Lady Flora Eaton, wife of John Craig Eaton, and as such, the daughter-in-law of the famed Canadian department store founder, Timothy Eaton.

THEN : Jarvis family Thanksgiving Day hunt, 1930s.

THEN : A more anonymous rider enjoys the autumnal colours of Wilket Creek Park, in the autumn of 1969.

NOW : Pumpkin selection, St. Lawrence Market, Thanksgiving Weekend, 2010.

NOW : Pumpkin selection, St. Lawrence Market, 2010.

NOW : Gourds and maize, St. Lawrence Market, 2010.

NOW : Candied apples, North Market, 2010.

NOW : Pumpkin Pie, North Market, 2010.

NOW : Thanksgiving Decoration, Cathedral Church of St. James, 2010.

NOW : Thanksgiving Altar Decoration, Cathedral Church of St. James, 2010.

NOW : Thanksgiving Altar Decoration, Cathedral Church of St. James, 2010.


Every year, on Thanksgiving Weekend, I start up my "Hallowe'en Season" of ghost tours.  The two-hour "Haunted Streets of Downtown Toronto" tour runs every night at 7:00 p.m., and the shorter "Ghosts of the University of Toronto" tour runs every night at 10:00 p.m.  Between Friday, October 8th and Sunday, October 31st, both tours are held each and every night.  Make sure to reserve though, as some nights are already almost sold out.  Reservations may be made by contacting me by e-mail at, or by telephone at (416) 487-9017.  Hallowe'en is always a busy time of year, and I am thankful to all the people who help to keep it that way!

For more information on either of the two ghost tours, please visit these links.
"The Haunted Streets of Downtown Toronto" Tour
"The Ghosts of the University of Toronto" Tour


  1. "Not many people are aware that the good old "May two-four" is actually a double holiday."

    I was certainly not aware of that before! Very informative post, Richard :)

    Also, I think next year we need to institute a Fransgiving hunt. Those riding outfits are smashing!

  2. Happy Thanksgiving, Richard!

    Great post!