Thanksgiving Down the Centuries

In less than two weeks, on October 8th, 2001, most Canadians will be marking Thanksgiving. As with many customs and traditions, the celebration of Thanksgiving is deeply rooted in the past. Three major sources, folkloric, religious and historical, converge to give us todays familiar holiday.

For centuries in western Europe, it was traditional to have an autumn festival to celebrate a bountiful harvest. Over time, the event was symbolized by the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. Originally, it was a curved goats horn filled with fruit, vegetables and grain; representing gratitude for harmony, peace and plenty. The cornucopia remains with us as a symbol of autumn and thanksgiving. It was only a matter of time before these secular observances would be combined with those of a religious nature.

In 1533, William Tyndale (c. 1492–1536), translator of the Bible into English, suggested that one or more Psalms or prayers of thanksgiving [be rendered] in the mother tongue. Shortly afterward a General Prayer of Thanksgiving was included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The 1662 version contained those now familiar words: We thy unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving kindness to us.

On the historical side, the first recorded observance of a religious Thanksgiving service on the North American continent took place in 1578 in Canadas eastern Arctic. Sir Martin Frobisher (c. 1535–1594), a famous English explorer, made three voyages to the New World in search of a north west passage to China. In 1576 he discovered the strait that still bears his name.

His final voyage, in 1578 was especially difficult. The expedition battled never ending storms, ice and fog. Four sailors were lost and one ship turned back to England. Undaunted, Frobisher persevered, and when the storms were over, A Thanksgiving was celebrated for deliverance from the perils of the sea. A second footnote in the history of Canadian Thanksgiving was added some thirty years later, by another explorer, Samuel de Champlain (c. 1567–1635), at Port Royal in the French colony of Acadia. This time, the circumstances were very different from those experienced by Frobisher.

An an antidote to the long winter ahead, Champlain inaugurated the Order of Good Cheer in the autumn of 1607. The charter members were the fifteen leading citizens of the colony. Each in turn was named Grand Master for a day, with responsibility for determining the menu and overseeing the cooking of an elaborate meal. Champlain was undoubtedly inspired by the harvest feasts, well known to his colonists, and common in rural France.

An insignia of office was designed to be worn by the Grand Master who led the diners in procession to the table. Historian Marc Lescarbot (1570–1642) has left an account of these dinners. It soon became a point of honour for each member to out do his fellows in providing sumptuous fare. Each gave himself to hunting and fishing [and trading for delicacies with the Mikmaq] so that the table groaned with the luxuries of sea, land and forest. There were roasts of venison; with ducks, geese and grouse; trout, cod and other fish of the sea.

Lescarbot concluded: Whatever our gourmands at home may think, we found as good cheer at Port Royal as they on the Rue aux Ours in Paris. Unfortunately, the Order of Good Cheer ended with the destruction of Port Royal in 1613. One point became clear. Early North American colonists, whether French or English, had the resources at hand to create a sumptuous meal.

Anyone who has lived in the United States, or is familiar with American media hype in late November, may be surprised that this snapshot did not begin with the the Pilgrim Fathers. After all, it is they who reputedly celebrated the very first North American Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621.

Less well known is another American claim for the first Thanksgiving. Some suggest that the distinction must go to members of the Berkeley Plantation who arrived on the banks of the James River in Virginia, Dec. 4, 1619. In the words of their charter: The day of arrival at the assigned place for plantation in the land of Virginia shall yearly and perpetually be kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.

No one can deny that the observance of Thanksgiving as Canadians now experience it, owes much to early American traditions, especially as they apply to the dinner. However, it should be noted that the two first Thanksgiving celebrations (that of Frobisher in 1578 and the Virginia Company in 1619) were religious services. The elevation of the harvest dinner to a focal point in the day did not happen until later.

The Pilgrims were deeply religious, more given to prayer and fasting than feasting. They did, however, mount a special meal to mark an abundant harvest in 1621. It is this event that is most often cited as beginning the tradition of the Thanksgiving dinner. The menu was not unlike that of the Order of Good Cheer. Featured items were: venison, fowl, cornmeal bread, dried berries, nuts and succotash. The latter was a cooked dish of corn and beans, favoured by the Wampamoag Indians. As a matter of interest, these same Indians concluded the harvesting of their corn with a feast and celebration.

Nearly five centuries after these early beginnings, both Berkeley Plantation and the city of Plymouth have elaborate re-enactments of the first Thanksgiving. In Virginia, on the grounds of Berkeley, a stately Georgian mansion, players costumed in doublets and pantaloons present a pageant that features the landing of the settlers in 1619. A religious service and Thanksgiving dinner follows.

Unfortunately, their replica ship Margaret cannot match the aura associated with Mayflower II as it lands a similarly costumed cast at Plymouth. The latter celebrations last for a week and annually bring an estimated 10,000 tourists to the Massachusetts port. As one visitor confided: In Plymouth, on Thanksgiving day, if you plan diligently and make reservations in advance, you can squeeze in three turkey dinners perhaps four. But its not compulsory.

The city of Plymouth, England, home port of the first Mayflower has launched its own transatlantic Thanksgiving Festival. Their program for November 2001 replicates almost every item of the Massachusetts celebration. On comparing the two, I was disturbed to find that the heavy hand of commercialism dominates both events. As if Thanksgiving were not enough; each will feature Christmas decorations, late night shopping and a special Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

It may be providential that Canadians do not know the precise location of Frobisher’s first Thanksgiving. Some authorities place the ceremony near the tip of northern Newfoundland; while consensus opinion puts the wandering explorer somewhere in the eastern Canadian Arctic. A re-enactment of any kind is highly unlikely.

Back to the migration of Thanksgiving traditions. During the late 18th century two major groups moved northward to what is now New Brunswick and Nova Scotia: the Planters and Loyalists. Since both were mainly from New England, they brought along, not only their Cape Cod architecture, but their Thanksgiving customs and traditions. Later migrations of Maritimers to New England reinforced these early ties.

It was not until 1879 that the Canadian Parliament declared Nov. 6th as a national day of Thanksgiving. Over the next 75 years, both later and earlier dates were tried, until it was decided that early October fitted more appropriately Canadian climatic conditions. On Jan. 31, 1957, Parliament proclaimed the observance of Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October.

This date is now accepted, as explained by song writer Krys Val Lewicki: October paints a land so green/ With yellow, orange and red/ We take this chance/To give our thanks/For family home and bread/An ages old tradition/Still carried on today/Our Nations heart will never part/If we believe this way. A Happy Thanksgiving to all Flashback readers!