(In honour of Thanksgiving, our regular Tuesday blog post is out on Monday!)
Growing up in a Jewish household in Montreal, Thanksgiving was never really on my radar. I mean, I knew it existed, but it had very little meaning for me personally. Mostly it was just a day off. At least, that’s how it was until I went over to my non-Jewish boyfriend’s house and experienced a “traditional” Canadian Thanksgiving for the first time. Oh my god, the mashed potatoes and gravy…. Anyways, after seeing a number of articles online that sounded wrong, I started wondering about the history of Canadian Thanksgiving. What I found both did, and didn’t, surprise me. So in this blog post, I’m going to talk about why we celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada, what distinguishes Canadian and American Thanksgiving, and what the holiday has to do with how we remember and forget our collective histories.
Presentism in Canadian Thanksgiving History
Let’s first establish what is not part of the history of Thanksgiving celebrations in Canada. First of all, I have seen a number of references to Robert Wolfall, chaplain to Martin Frobisher, giving a Thanksgiving Service off the coast of Nunavut on the 2nd of September, 1578. This is not the Thanksgiving service you are thinking of, with turkey and your drunk Uncle Bob. This is was a religious service that is part of Anglican liturgy, and was used on many occasions to give thanks for good things happening, like not dying of scurvy.
Second, I’ve also seen a number of references to Samuel de Champlain’s Order of Good Cheer in 1605. This was an attempt to stave off boredom during the first winter in the settlement that would come to be called Port Royal (present day Annapolis Royal, NS). Basically, all the men (because there were no women) had to eat was hardtack and pork, so they tried to make it a little less depressing by planning elaborate celebrations, including theatrical performances at the Theatre de Neptune (which, not incidentally, saw the men playing both male and female roles).
There are also a number of other early instances referenced, from the planting of the wooden cross on the top of Mount Royal (1643), to the celebration in Halifax at the end of the Seven Year’s War (1763), and so on. So why don’t these occasions count as early “Thanksgivings”? First of all, they were usually religious services performed after something bad had happened. And second of all, they had nothing to do with the time of the year. But, more importantly, reading modern concepts (like Thanksgiving) back into the past is a form of presentism, which is something that all good historians avoid.
Expert Tip: Presentism is when we use the standards of the present to understand (and sometimes judge) the past. This is extremely problematic, simply because you can’t assume that people in the past thought the same way that we do today. And they likely didn’t. Each person and each time period is shaped by its culture and geography, developing what is known as common sense. But this form of common sense only makes sense in that time or place. Just think about your racist or homophobic grandparents. You know what I’m talking about — everyone has one. We usually laugh when grandma says something horrifying, joking that she’s old and grew up in a different time (and may or may not have lost all her marbles). The same is true for people who come from an even earlier time. Historians also encourage people to be compassionate when looking back; just as you make fun of your grandparents, your grandchildren will one day make fun of you, so try not to judge (most) people too harshly. Does this mean that people in the past were assholes? Not necessarily. While some definitely were, most were just regular people. Just like today.
Blame the Americans
So where does Canadian Thanksgiving actually come from? Like so many of our cultural institutions, the Americans are to blame. Before we go any further though, we should establish the history of American Thanksgiving. I’m not going to spend too much time here, mostly because this is a topic that has been well discussed.
Expert Tip: In the US, Columbus Day falls on the same date (usually) as Canadian Thanksgiving. Check out The Oatmeal’s spectacular treatment of this holiday, and why it’s absolutely horrible, here. Spoiler alert: genocide, imperialism, colonialism, and racism, all in one neat package.
Nearly everything you’ve ever heard about the history of American Thanksgiving is bs. Aside from the problematic story about the pilgrims and the Wampanoag, Thanksgiving as we know it, did not become a holiday until the middle of the nineteenth century. For all intents and purposes, Thanksgiving, as we understand it, was invented by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady Book, a popular magazine of the era. As historian Elizabeth Pleck explains, from 1846 onwards, Hale included regular editorials encouraging Americans to celebrate the “Great American Festival,” also known as Thanksgiving. She was so influential in her campaign that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it as a regular national holiday in 1863.
Expert Tip: She’s also the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I’m not even joking.
Hale’s goals in establishing the holiday were three-fold: first, she established American independence and distinctiveness by arguing that this was an entirely original holiday, with no connection to British harvest festivals. Second, it served a religious purpose in retrenching and reinforcing Protestantism as the religion of America and as the centrepiece of American life. Finally, it served nationalist interests by celebrating the American nation and its birth. While I am separating these three goals, they really need to be understood as interdependent rather than independent.
Hale is also responsible for connecting Thanksgiving to an invented and romanticized past (seeing a theme here?), which is where the pilgrims came in. In the pages of her magazine, she and her successive editors established the customs and foods that we now associate with the holiday. For instance, during the 1870s and 1880s, the suggested menu for Thanksgiving included oysters, soups, turkey, ham, roast beef, chicken pie, rice, potatoes, cranberries, macaroni, numerous pies and cakes, fruit, and coffee.
So how did this holiday come to be transplanted northwards? There is some dispute on the matter. Some authors attribute it to a combination of American influence through print media, particularly in Ontario, as well as the nineteenth century romantic movement and its revival of harvest festivals from British history. Peter Stevens argues that it was a movement spearheaded by Protestant clergy members who saw the growing consolidation of the holiday in the US as a source of inspiration. Much like Hale, these clergy members also believed that the holiday was a good opportunity to both unite the population of Canada by helping “Canadians understand who they are as a people,” while also shoring up the Christian (read Protestant) religion in Canada. As Stevens explains, Christianity was under attack in the mid-nineteenth century, largely due to the influence of Darwin as well as declining church attendance). Consequently, the growing prominence of a new holiday served to shore up the authority of a declining clerical community. The result was that, for most of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving was a religious event. Individuals would attend a church service in the morning, and perhaps have a family meal together in the evening.
Regardless of the method of transmission, by the middle of the nineteenth century, around the same time as in the US, Thanksgiving had entered the public consciousness, at least in Ontario.
Expert Tip: How do we know this? Historians often look for the first written records of an event occurring, assuming that once it has reached a certain critical mass in the public consciousness, it will start appearing in print. A modern example would be to look for the use of the term “Internet.”
According to one of the sources I consulted, one of the earliest references to a Canadian Thanksgiving practice comes from Ontario in 1855 in a publication called The Mackenzie Message. Four years after that, The Detroit Free Press remarked on the similarity between Canadian and American celebrations of Thanksgiving. According to a number of sources I read, the announcement in Parliament read that there should be “a day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.” The actual day itself would move around for a while, usually between October and November, until 1921, when it was combined with Remembrance Day (then called Armistice Day) for around a decade. This didn’t last, due to some people complaining that it was disrespectful to combine a celebration with a day of remembrance. Finally, on January 31, 1957, Thanksgiving was officially established as the second Monday in October.
We see further evidence of American influence when we look at how Thanksgiving is described in Canadian sources, particularly with respect to foods. The earliest references to Thanksgiving foods in Canadian cookbooks are derived from American foods. Moving forward, we can see increasing references, in published and personal documents, to the kinds of foods we now associate with Thanksgiving, including roast goose and pumpkin pie. And by 1928, we see the first formalized Thanksgiving menu printed in Chatelaine magazine, the largest women’s magazine in Canada. Described as a “characteristic meal,” the menu includes: “grapefruit cocktail; roast turkey with chestnut or celery stuffing; cranberry jelly; giblet gravy; sweet potatoes; creamed cauliflower; apple, nut, and celery salad; pumpkin pie with whipped cream; and coffee.””
Today, when most people think about Thanksgiving, they see it as a secular holiday that is simply a celebration of the harvest. We usually reserve our criticism for the American version of the holiday, particularly the way it represents the conquest of a continent as something benevolent. Canadians tend to be especially critical of the nationalist overtones of American Thanksgiving as well. But in our rush to judge Americans, practically a Canadian tradition, we’re ignoring the reality that we’re doing exactly the same thing, and we have been this whole time.
As Peter Stevens argues, when we look back at nineteenth century celebrations of Thanksgiving, we can see obvious nationalist and imperialist language being used in religious sermons for the holiday. There are many allusions to Empire and Canada’s connection to Britain. As he puts it, the fact that Canadians are using a holiday borrowed from the Americans to celebrate the British Empire, “really illustrates the place of Canada as the country in between the United States and Britain.” Andrew Smith and Shelley Boyd agree, pointing to the combination of Thanksgiving and Remembrance Day in the 1920s. As they note, not only does it indicate that Canadians were seeing Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but it also suggests “an increasing desire on the part of Canadians to reflect on their sacrifices and give thanks as a nation.”
To be fair, the religious, nationalist, and imperial overtones of the holiday have lessened since then. Such a Protestant and British discourse around the holiday was very alienating to Catholics and Jews as well as individuals from other ethnic and religious groups. Working-class people also resented the established celebration of the holiday, since it was a rare day off for them and they had no desire to spend it in church. Increasingly, the Canadian population began turning to more commercial amusements, like turkey shooting contests, military parades, and football, as part of their Thanksgiving celebrations.
However, the original intent of the holiday still survives, though it is less apparent than it used to be. Thanksgiving, throughout the late 20th century and into the 21st century, has become seen as a “traditional” Canadian holiday. Most people today, including my husband, will argue that the holiday is entirely secular. But, as with Christmas, the holiday still has its origins in a Christian, and in this case Protestant, tradition. While it may be secular, it’s impossible to entirely erase all of the symbolism bound up in the holiday. This is what historians and academics call Christian-normalization. This is a process that takes place wherein Christianity is assumed to be the default religion of all individuals — the result being an ingrained assumption on the part of many Canadians that all Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving. But we don’t. Most cultures have their own version of a harvest festival. Jews celebrate Succot, which takes place around this time of year, but the celebration is entirely unconnected to Canadian Thanksgiving traditions. Christian-normalization operates even when a holiday is seen as secular. I’m a secular/cultural Jew, so I celebrate Jewish holidays without the religious aspects. It’s no different from a Canadian secular person celebrating Thanksgiving.
The normalization process works for food as well. The foods that are cooked during Thanksgiving are imagined as inherently Canadian (though I suppose the corollary to “as American as apple pie” would be “as Canadian as butter tarts”). This cuisine, based on an amalgamation of British, American, and, in some cases, French Canadian foods, is just as invented as the holiday itself. But over time, it has come to be seen as “neutral” and “normal.” This is the case to such an extent that through the 1950s and right up to today, new immigrants are regularly taught how to cook a “traditional” Canadian Thanksgiving dinner as part of the process of learning to be “Canadian.”
Finally, Thanksgiving, both Canadian and American, is inherently imperialist and colonial.
Expert Tip: These two words are often used together, but while they are interrelated, they mean very different things. Imperialism refers to the process of creating an Empire, where you have one country or region exercising control over another. This may or not include actually ruling (it often just involved tribute, for instance). Colonialism is where one country or region takes over another and moves in new people to establish colonies to exert their power and lay claim to the conquered region.
Again, most of us are familiar with the American narrative, but most Canadians are not aware of our own very violent colonial past and present. Colonialism in Canada isn’t something that happened during the British colonial period. The Canadian, provincial, and municipal governments have a long history of forcibly removing Indigenous peoples from certain territories, stealing their lands, taking away their children, stripping them of their culture and language, breaking promises made during treaty negotiations, and then starving them to death. And yes, I mean that all literally. One of the most pernicious aspects to this is the idea that Canada was an empty land prior to the arrival of European settlers, something that has been proven to be false again and again. And yet, none of this history is acknowledged when we celebrate a distinctively Canadian holiday.
You might be thinking that this is something that only happened in the past, but it continues to this day. Just read about all of those instances at the top of this blog post referring to “the first Thanksgiving,” (Martin Frobisher, I’m looking at you). You may be wondering why so many people are seemingly obsessed with establishing the “first” Thanksgiving. There are two reasons. The first is that Canada is such a young nation. Many groups and communities often invent long histories in order to legitimize themselves – this is a well established part of nationalism and the reason why Canadian history is taught the way it is in most schools. And the second is that it erases centuries of colonial violence by placing an emphasis only on White, European explorers. Rather than acknowledging that the land Canada now occupies was mostly stolen/misappropriated as a result of colonial violence, we have invented a new history that both erases this past and replaces it with one that legitimizes our claim to this territory. Poof. Instant Canadian History, just add turkey.
As my husband (who very kindly copyedits and reviews all my blog posts) noted, this is a rather depressing way to end a blog post. To say nothing of the fact that I only addressed some of the problems with this holiday (I don’t talk about the gendered and classist aspects to the holiday, but they were definitely there!) But I’m not going to end it just yet. Most holidays have problematic histories, but that doesn’t mean they all need to be tossed out the window. Nor should we all sit around the table crying into your turkey and feeling guilty (at least not because of the holiday’s history – you’re on your own when it comes to the food). Instead, I would encourage you to recognize the history of the holiday and the history of this country as well as the need to make a better future and maybe try to incorporate that into your Thanksgiving celebration.* For instance, my former supervisor, Lynne Marks, always had us over for Passover, and rather than simply recite the traditional passages, she uses a Social Justice Haggadah (prayer book) that calls on Jews to remember their past as slaves, and to work in the world to slavery and injustice. I think that’s a fine tradition to incorporate into your Thanksgiving celebration. Because the reality is that, Thanksgiving, as with all other holidays, and its meaning continues to evolve and change to meet the needs of an evolving and changing society. Now it is a Christian-normative holiday that reinforces the Anglo-American nature of Canadian culture, while masking this with secularity and a hollow attempt at inclusivity. What it will mean in the future is up to us.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post! Since our schedule is already a bit off this week, I’m going to have the latest edition of upcoming publications coming out on Thursday, so don’t miss that. Then we’re back to normal on Sunday with the next Canadian history roundup!
*Just please, for the love of God, don’t try to incorporate your idea of an Indigenous harvest festival. That’s not honouring Indigenous history, that’s cultural appropriation.
- “Where Does Your Thanksgiving Meal Come From?” Smithsonian Magazine, November 20, 2012 (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/where-does-your-thanksgiving-meal-come-from-138705036/?no-ist)
- Ashley Nicole McCray and Lawrence Ware, “Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving,” Counterpunch, November 26, 2015. (http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/11/26/decolonizing-the-history-of-thanksgiving)
- “What About the Indians?,” Ask A Slave, Youtube video, November 24, 2013 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xn9Tf4QU7Fk).
- Seriously, you need to watch this.
 Elizabeth Pleck,”The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States,” Journal Of Social History 32, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 773-790.
 Anne Blue Wills, “Pilgrims and Progress: How Magazines Made Thanksgiving,” Church History 72, no. 1 (March 2003): 150.
 Andrew Smith and Shelley Boyd, “Talking Turkey: Thanksgiving in Canada and the United States,” What’s to Eat?: Entrées in Canadian Food History, ed. Natalie Cooke (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2009), 120.
 Peter Stevens interviewed by Sean Graham, History Slam Episode Fifty-Five: Celebrating Canada Part 2, Podcast Audio, November 5, 2014. http://activehistory.ca/2014/11/history-slam-episode-fifty-five-celebrating-canada-part-2/
 Smith and Boyd, 124.
 I tried to find an original references and I couldn’t. If you know it, please comment below or send me an email!
 Smith and Boyd, 133
 Smith and Boyd, 128.
 Franca Iacovetta and Valerie J. Korinek, “Jello-Salads, One-Stop Shopping, and Maria the Homemaker: The Gendered Politics of Food” in Sisters or Strangers?: Immigrant, Ethnic, and Racialized Women in Canadian History, eds. Marlene Epp, Franca Iacovetta, Frances Swyripa, 190-230 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).
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The images for this blog post are all vintage Happy Thanksgiving Day cards with expired copyrights, all of them American. But they were too cute too pass up.