First of all, writing about Thanksgiving in early October rather than late November may seem strange to those of you not in the know. Thanksgiving is a national holiday in Canada, and is held on the second Monday of every October, as opposed to American Thanksgiving, which is held on the fourth Thursday of every November. [Of course, Americans call their American Thanksgiving just “Thanksgiving” and for those very, very few Americans who even know that Canadians also have Thanksgiving, they would call it Canadian Thanksgiving!]
As is the case with all Canadians, I am getting ready for Thanksgiving, planning for a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, and, yes, spending time thinking about all that I have to be thankful about. It’s in the air; the harvest here is almost at an end, the leaves are turning rapidly, and the decorative piles of pumpkins and swaths of chrysanthemums everywhere are a stark reminder that Thanksgiving time is indeed here, even though it is extraordinarily warm and dry for this time of year.
Aside from the usual preparations, I have spent some time digging into the historical roots of Thanksgiving in Canada. And the reason I’m doing so may surprise you. It surprised me. My quest came from a chance encounter with a new friend. This year I have been paired up with a delightful young Syrian family in our community, one of thousands of Syrian refugee families that have been welcomed to Canada, and one of a few hundred that are now enriching our small community in eastern Canada. I spend about two hours with them every week, helping them practice their English. We talk about all kinds of things, from grammar to cooking to how to help their older child succeed as he starts kindergarten. Each week we spend some time going through the materials they have studied at our community Multicultural Centre, learning the English language together with Canadian customs and traditions in an impressive and effective blend of lessons.
Some of the material their teachers use comes from the U.S., which isn’t surprising; why re-invent the wheel. The developers of the material usually do a pretty good job of ensuring the material is country-neutral. However, Thanksgiving was another thing altogether. My “student” asked me if I was going to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving and then showed me what they had learned about the holiday. Learning all these traditions provides opportunity for new vocabulary and history lessons, and provides opportunity for discussion. In this case, the material had been changed so that all the references to America had been changed to North America. Good try, but, sorry, this time it didn’t work. I read about how the North American Natives helped the Pilgrims learn how to survive the North American winter. How they helped the Pilgrims learn to hunt and fish, to plant corn, and to pick berries. And then they all got together to give thanks for surviving.
Wow, wait a minute. This story is not about Canadian Thanksgiving. It’s historically accurate – for the Pilgrims of Massachusetts in 1621. I learned the same story when I was a kid growing up in New York. Of course, since this is 100% not a Canadian story, and bears absolutely no relevance to why we have Thanksgiving in Canada, it gave me an opportunity to start a very different discussion than the authors would had intended. And, I’m ashamed to say, it was the first time in my life that I stopped and asked the question: And what happened to these American Natives after they had helped the Pilgrims survive the winter? That isn’t such a happy answer. It brought me up short to realize that this story can still be used and people can somehow get away with not having to add: and then the Pilgrims gave the American Natives dreaded European diseases and took over their lands. And that would be the kind response.
One question that emerged from this story was my student asking what the word “pilgrim” meant. I explained that it referred to a person who travels to a place with special religious significance to pay homage, like Muslims going on the Hajj to Mecca. That term was used for the Pilgrims who first went to America from Britain because they were fleeing religious persecution (which is more than a little ironic in today’s context and important to remember). Then we talked about why we have Thanksgiving in Canada. I knew it wasn’t about the Pilgrims! I knew it was associated with giving thanks for the harvest, and that there is a Thanksgiving Sunday in the Church of England calendar that is also sometime in October. However, I didn’t have any in-depth knowledge.
As usual, I could quickly overcome that deficiency with a little googling. First of all, I had no idea that the explorer Martin Frobisher (of Frobisher Bay fame) is given credit by some historians for holding the first Thanksgiving in North America, way back in 1578. Not surprisingly, his expedition of 15 ships in the Arctic, in the hunt for the Northwest Passage, had much to be thankful for when most of the men somehow survived a winter in the ice. French settlers who arrived in Canada with Samuel de Chaplain also held feasts of thanks starting in 1604, including with local indigenous people. The history of Thanksgiving in Canada parallels several milestones in Canadian history, including having used Thanksgiving to give thanks that we had not been taken over by the U.S. during the War of 1812, and hence, among many other things, had avoided the bloodshed of the Civil War.
The reality is that feasts of thanksgiving have been held by our indigenous peoples for far longer than anyone else has been here. Celebrations of Thanksgiving are held in various countries in Europe and elsewhere around the world for the same reason: giving thanks is a very good thing to do, and harvest time is an especially appropriate time to be doing so. In Canada, the first official Canadian Thanksgiving holiday was in 1879, having become commonplace across Canada in the 1870s, shortly following the declaration of Canada’s autonomy from Great Britain in 1867 (yes, 150 years ago!). We have been celebrating it on the second Monday of October since 1957.
I asked my student if there is a similar holiday of Thanksgiving in Syria or within Islam. The answer is a good one to leave you with: “No, not really. But we pray 5 times a day and every time we pray we give thanks for all that we have.” That answer is hard to beat! As for me, I am thankful that Canada has welcomed these thousands of Syrian refugees who want to make a good and safe life for their children and who otherwise would still be with the countless millions of others in refugee camps. My association with this one family has already enriched my life.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Photo credit: Lisa Totton