A history of Thanksgiving
by Julie Folk
Thanksgiving–turkey, cornucopia, pumpkin pie and pilgrims come to mind when we hear that word, but what is this day really about? Dr. Mark Anderson, a professor of History here at the University of Regina, helps uncover where today’s traditions come from and how this day began by looking back in history. Where did it begin?
In European countries, at the end of every harvest, farmers celebrated a successful season. Traditions of both Canadian and American Thanksgivings have European roots, which were planted in the New World with the arrival of settlers. Anderson tells us that, “The first Thanksgiving held in North America actually occurred in Canada.” Martin Frobisher of England brought European Thanksgiving traditions with him in 1578, and on arrival in today’s Newfoundland, he held a feast to give thanks for his safe voyage. The settlers who arrived after him continued this tradition to show thanks for their journey.
The story of the feast that most people know, however, took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. It was then that the English separatists who arrived off the Mayflower feasted with First Nations from the area. Anderson explains that the indigenous people of New England actually had six thanksgiving celebrations over the year, giving thanks for the different crops that they produced. The dinner they shared with the Pilgrims was about their fifth celebration of thanks during that year alone.
Interestingly enough, this traditional first Thanksgiving we have all come to know would not have happened without the indigenous people. Of the 102 pilgrims that came off the Mayflower, only half survived their first winter. The following year, the indigenous people intervened and taught them to plant corn rather than wheat, helping them to survive the following winter. The feast of Thanksgiving was held when this corn crop was first harvested.
Anderson says, “The U.S. portray the first Thanksgiving as a wonderful meeting between pilgrims and indigenous people, but in fact the pilgrims were intolerant, religious bigots.” The Europeans were incredibly aggressive, and with the succeeding groups of pilgrims, relations with indigenous people became hostile.
This traditional story, however, was not known until the 1800s, when a journal from one of the colony’s leaders, Edward Winslow, was found. Before then, Thanksgiving was simply a day of thanks that Abraham Lincoln introduced after Union victories in the American Civil War. Since the journal was found, American Thanksgiving has been linked with the original 1621 feast.
During the American Revolution, the Americans that were loyal to the British moved to Canada, bringing with them their Thanksgiving traditions. At the same time, French settlers traveling with Samuel de Champlain arrived in the new world, and held a feast of thanks, forming “The Order of Good Cheer,” sharing food with the First Nations people that they met.
At the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, Halifax celebrated a special Thanksgiving.
Near the end of every harvest season following this, a celebration was held, and became common practice for the settlers from England. In 1879, Parliament named November 6 the official day for Thanksgiving. The date was changed several times, until 1957 when it was decided that Thanksgiving Day would be celebrated the second Monday of October. How do we celebrate?
Thanksgiving is celebrated differently in various cultures. The most common Thanksgiving tradition is the turkey.
Personally, I cannot remember one time when Thanksgiving night our family didn’t sit down to a huge turkey, fighting over who gets the dark meat. The meal itself consists of the turkey, of course, with (traditionally), stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans or corn, sweet potatoes, buns, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
The feast we eat today stems from the early days of Thanksgiving. The early settlers did indeed eat wild turkey among other locally found foods in the first celebrations. The wild turkey is an interesting creature. Unlike its domestic counterpart, it is cagey and clever.
Many desired the turkey as the American mascot in place of the eagle, including Benjamin Franklin. He stated, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor and very often lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true original native of North America.”
Another story goes that the Queen of England was eating roast goose to celebrate the harvest one year when she heard the news that the Spanish Armada had sunk on its way to attack England. She asked for another roast goose to give thanks, and the goose became English tradition. The settlers in North America, unable to find enough geese, resorted to turkey.
To follow the menu of early Thanksgiving feast, our dinners would be of wild turkey, goose, or eagle, with seafood. I, for one, give thanks that our meal has transformed to what it is today.
The cornucopia is another common tradition, though one that I am unfamiliar with. It is also called the horn of plenty, and comes from England, where it was used in celebration of the harvest. This tradition, where farm workers filled a curved goat's horn with fruit and grain, was brought to Canada with the settlers, and is often seen now as a symbol, or maybe a place setting on the Thanksgiving table.
The festival of Thanksgiving has predominantly become a Christian celebration here in North America. As Anderson reminds us, “All over the planet people give thanks to a creative life force, it’s like saying grace.” While Thanksgiving has turned into a traditional holiday here in Canada, it is celebrated unofficially every day, everywhere in our world.
Although parts of Thanksgiving are viewed religiously, much of the holiday has been taken over by commercial aspects. In the USA, Thanksgiving is a huge football weekend and a kickoff to Christmas. There is more air traffic control than any other weekend of the year, and a time of huge advertisement. The entire Thanksgiving weekend has become a huge cultural event in the USA, much more so than Canada.
Anderson notes, “Canada is overrun with American culture, [for] American culture is much louder.” As with other major holidays of the year, Canada and the USA spend the majority of time on these holidays spending too much money and gorging on food. The holiday has become very commercialized.
While the market side of Thanksgiving won’t cease, we should ensure that we focus on the true roots of Thanksgiving by being grateful for what we have, where we live, and the important people in our lives.
Sometimes in the rush of our daily activities we forget these things. Thanksgiving gives us a chance to remember the important parts of life, reflect on them, and give thanks to God or whatever higher power we believe in. So this Thanksgiving, let’s remember why this holiday began, and continue the tradition of thanks.