I grew up on a small farm in Ontario, Canada, where we may not have been more thankful than our American neighbors, but we certainly were thankful first. We were thankful in October. Americans weren’t thankful till November. Having lived in the States for so many years, however, I have adopted a multicultural approach to Thanksgiving. I’m thankful in both October and November. I even thank God for Americans.
Way back in 1578, Martin Frobisher made his way across the stormy green Atlantic. He was looking to explore the New World as the British were wont to do, and he didn’t particularly get good directions as men are wont to do. So when he landed on the cold stony shores of Newfoundland, he held a formal Thanksgiving service to thank God he hadn’t gotten more severely lost in the Arctic wastes. Historically, that was the first Thanksgiving celebration in the New World.
Forty-three years later and further south, the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with the Indian Chief Massasoit and his Wampanoag tribe. In the Old World, times of prayer and thanksgiving were mostly accompanied by “fasting” not “feasting.” In the New World, however, they decided that feasting was a lot more fun than deprivation. The Pilgrims and their guests celebrated for three days, eating wild turkey, deer, cornbread, squash, cranberries, and even a bit of duck and swan. Canadians were still celebrating with fish, moose, and duty-free hardtack.
In the 1750s, some American settlers immigrated to Nova Scotia. They came for the great game and fish, to help the British irritate the French, and to buy Joni Mitchell CDs. They brought their unique Thanksgiving celebration rituals with them and showed the Canadians how to cook swan and tell Newfie jokes.
During the Revolutionary War, many more Americans immigrated to all parts of Canada. Some were escaping persecution because of their British loyalties. But most settlers were just zealously spreading their Thanksgiving traditions with hungry Canadians who were still trying to dig themselves out of that snow that mysteriously appears as soon as you cross the Canadian border.
Most settlers from the old country were used to having a service to thank God for the harvest each autumn; but in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November a national day of prayer and thanksgiving. Not to be outdone, Parliament passed a law in 1879 declaring a day of thanksgiving and a national holiday for Canada. No more of this thankfulness from an overflowing heart jazz. Now through the wisdom of government intervention, it was a legal requirement.
Eventually in 1941, Congress set the holiday for the fourth Thursday of November. In 1957, Canada proclaimed that her Thanksgiving would be on the second Monday in October. That would allow enough time to lose the added pounds before indulging in another big feast at Christmas. It also ensured that if they got snowed in before November, they would have had at least one decent meal.
Canadians and Americans, aside from a few minor skirmishes early on, have been pretty good neighbors. Of course, it helps for good neighbors to have good fences. That’s why the 49th parallel was invented.
We’ve exchanged many cultural traditions over the years. Americans gave us sitcoms; we taught them how to rub noses. Americans taught us how to make their tourist industry flourish by wintering in Florida; we taught them how to rub noses. Americans taught us how to buy goods made in the USA; we taught them how to rub noses.
But of all the wonderful traditions our two nations have exchanged over the years, perhaps the most precious are the ones we continue to share every autumn as we gather together with family and friends and thank God that we’re not still Europeans.