Canadian Thanksgiving: A Journey Through History

by CiCi
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Canadian Thanksgiving is a cherished holiday that brings families and communities together to express gratitude and celebrate the harvest season. Unlike its American counterpart, Canadian Thanksgiving has its own unique origins and traditions. Understanding the evolution of Canadian Thanksgiving requires delving into the historical, cultural, and social contexts that shaped this beloved holiday. This article explores the journey of Canadian Thanksgiving from its early beginnings to its establishment as an official holiday, highlighting the significant milestones and the cultural influences that have contributed to its current form.

Early Celebrations: Indigenous and European Influences

Long before European settlers arrived in North America, Indigenous peoples in Canada held their own ceremonies and feasts to celebrate the harvest and give thanks for the bounty of the land. These celebrations were deeply rooted in their spiritual and cultural practices, reflecting a profound respect for nature and the interconnectedness of all living things. The arrival of European explorers and settlers introduced new elements to these traditions, blending Indigenous customs with European practices.


One of the earliest recorded European Thanksgiving celebrations in Canada occurred in 1578 when English explorer Martin Frobisher held a ceremony in present-day Newfoundland. Frobisher and his crew were giving thanks for their safe arrival in the New World after a perilous journey through the Arctic. This event is often cited as the first Thanksgiving celebration by Europeans in North America, predating the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, by more than four decades.


In the years that followed, French settlers in New France (modern-day Quebec) also held feasts of thanks, often tied to religious observances. These early celebrations were influenced by the Catholic tradition of celebrating the harvest and giving thanks to God for blessings received.

The Development of Thanksgiving Traditions

As more settlers arrived in Canada, the celebration of Thanksgiving evolved, incorporating elements from various cultures and regions. The Loyalists, who fled the United States during the American Revolution and settled in Canada, brought with them their own Thanksgiving customs. These included the tradition of holding a feast and giving thanks for a successful harvest. The influence of the Loyalists helped to spread the practice of celebrating Thanksgiving across different parts of Canada.

Throughout the 19th century, Thanksgiving was observed sporadically in different regions, often tied to local events or religious practices. The date and nature of the celebrations varied widely, reflecting the diverse cultural backgrounds of Canada’s inhabitants. In some areas, Thanksgiving was celebrated in conjunction with other events, such as military victories or significant anniversaries. It was not until the mid-19th century that efforts to establish a national day of Thanksgiving began to take shape.

Establishing a National Holiday

The push to establish a national Thanksgiving holiday gained momentum in the 1850s and 1860s. Various religious leaders, politicians, and community groups advocated for a unified day of thanks that would bring the country together in gratitude and reflection. One of the most notable advocates was the Reverend Robert Murray, a Presbyterian minister who argued that a national day of Thanksgiving would promote unity and moral virtue.

In 1859, the Province of Canada (which included parts of modern-day Ontario and Quebec) proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in response to the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness. This proclamation set a precedent for future Thanksgiving celebrations, emphasizing the importance of gratitude and community.

The idea of a national Thanksgiving continued to gain support, and in 1879, the Canadian Parliament declared November 6 as a national day of Thanksgiving. This decision marked the first time Thanksgiving was officially recognized as a national holiday in Canada. However, the date of Thanksgiving continued to change over the years, often being tied to specific events or local harvests.

Finding a Permanent Date

The quest for a permanent date for Thanksgiving continued into the 20th century. Various dates were proposed and celebrated, reflecting the diverse regional customs and preferences. The instability of the holiday’s date led to confusion and inconsistency, prompting calls for a fixed date that would allow for nationwide observance.

During World War I, Thanksgiving and Armistice Day (now Remembrance Day) were celebrated on the same day, November 11, leading to calls for separating the two observances to give each the recognition it deserved. In 1921, the Canadian Parliament declared that Thanksgiving would be observed on the second Monday in October, aligning it more closely with the timing of the traditional harvest season and distinguishing it from Remembrance Day.

This decision helped to solidify Thanksgiving’s place in the Canadian calendar, providing a consistent date for the celebration of gratitude and harvest. The choice of October also set Canadian Thanksgiving apart from the American holiday, which is celebrated in late November.

Thanksgiving Today: A Blend of Traditions

Today, Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated with a rich blend of traditions that reflect the country’s multicultural heritage. While the core themes of gratitude and harvest remain central, the ways in which Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving vary widely. Family gatherings and festive meals are common, with turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie often taking center stage. However, regional and cultural variations add unique flavors to the celebrations.

In Quebec, for example, Thanksgiving is known as “Action de grâce” and may include dishes influenced by French cuisine, such as tourtière (a meat pie) and tarte aux pommes (apple pie). In Indigenous communities, Thanksgiving celebrations often incorporate traditional foods and ceremonies that honor the land and its bounty.

In addition to family gatherings and feasts, Thanksgiving in Canada is marked by various community events and activities. Many communities host fall fairs, parades, and festivals that celebrate the season and bring people together. Volunteering and charitable activities are also common, with many Canadians using the holiday as an opportunity to give back to their communities and support those in need.

Reflecting on the Meaning of Thanksgiving

While the specific customs and traditions of Canadian Thanksgiving may vary, the underlying principles of gratitude, community, and reflection remain constant. Thanksgiving provides an opportunity for Canadians to pause and reflect on the blessings in their lives, to appreciate the abundance of the harvest, and to come together with loved ones.

In a broader sense, Thanksgiving also serves as a reminder of the importance of gratitude in fostering a sense of well-being and connection. In a world that often feels fast-paced and disconnected, taking time to give thanks and celebrate the simple joys of life can be a powerful act of mindfulness and appreciation.

As Canada continues to evolve and grow as a multicultural nation, the celebration of Thanksgiving reflects the country’s rich tapestry of cultures and traditions. Each family and community brings its own unique perspective to the holiday, contributing to a vibrant and diverse mosaic of Thanksgiving celebrations.

Conclusion: The Enduring Spirit of Thanksgiving

Canadian Thanksgiving has come a long way from its early beginnings as a blend of Indigenous and European harvest celebrations. The journey to establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday has been marked by various milestones, including the influence of the Loyalists, the advocacy of religious and community leaders, and the eventual designation of a fixed date in October.

Today, Thanksgiving in Canada is a cherished holiday that brings people together in a spirit of gratitude and celebration. It is a time to honor the harvest, appreciate the blessings in our lives, and connect with loved ones and community. As Canadians continue to celebrate Thanksgiving in their own unique ways, the enduring spirit of the holiday remains a testament to the values of gratitude, community, and reflection that have always been at its heart.

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