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Thanksgiving in Canada: What's it all about anyway?

October, 2016

Thanksgiving is so prominent in the American media that Thanksgiving celebrations in our own country can often feel overlooked. When our American-made calendars feature pictures of turkeys in November instead of October and our Thanksgiving television specials tell stories of pilgrims in New England, it can be easy to get confused. But despite being overshadowed by its southern counterpart, Canadian Thanksgiving traditions are said to reach further back than those pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.

In 1578, about 45 years before the first American Thanksgiving, the famous English explorer (and occasional pirate) Martin Frobisher encountered stormy weather while sailing the Arctic ocean. When he lost one of his ships to the ice floes, he assumed that it was only a matter of time before the entire company would sink beneath the waves. A fortunate wind soon picked up, however, and blew the remaining explorers into the shelter and safety of what is now Baffin Island’s Frobisher Bay. The men celebrated their good fortune with a feast of fish and gave thanks to God for delivering them from danger.

It’s a good story, and it might even be true. But many Canadians say that it doesn’t really count as the first Thanksgiving. None of today’s traditions really line up with Frobisher’s experiences. We don’t eat fish to commemorate the day, nor do we use the date to celebrate the explorer spirit of Canada. But then again, the story of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock doesn’t share too many similarities to the modern American Thanksgiving either, so maybe Frobisher deserves some slack.

Modern Canadian Thanksgiving didn’t surface until the 1750s as a way for the city of Halifax to celebrate the end of the Seven Year’s War, though it was not officially recognised until 1879 when the newly formed Canadian Government named it an official holiday. This new version of Thanksgiving placed more emphasis on harvest celebrations and purposely steered away from ideas of religious deliverance.

So it seems that Canadian Thanksgiving has been many things to many people over the centuries. It might be tempting to label it as a hollow tradition because of this, but there is one common thread that links all of these diverse origin stories. Through the centuries, Canadian Thanksgiving has always been a time where people make time in their busy lives to stop and reflect on what is important to them. Everyone has something worth celebrating, whether it’s living to explore another day, an end to a long war, a bountiful harvest or just being able to spend time with your family.

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