Turkey, Tradition, and the National Fabric: An Excerpt on the Origins of Canadian Thanksgiving

The air is cooling, scarves are knotting, and across the country Canadians will gather ‘round autumnal tables for their annual Thanksgiving dinner. And though some Canucks may be deciding on a side dish and how to skirt political debate, there’s another question on many minds:

What exactly are we doing here? 

While the American Thanksgiving is steeped in nationalism, ritual, and history, the origins of the Canadian version are a little less clear, with few of us actually knowing where the holiday comes from. If this makes you feel mildly guilty, focus that energy on your cranberry sauce instead. We’ve got you covered with the context you’ll need to impress your guests this Thanksgiving weekend.

For answers, we turned to Celebrating Canada: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities, from editors Matthew Hayday and Raymond B. Blake. From the pages of Peter Stevens’s essay on where it all began – think church, Brits, and our neighbours to the south – learn how Thanksgiving was always meant to be a day to celebrate being Canadian.


Excerpt from "'Righteousness Exalteth the Nation': Religion, Nationalism, and Thanksgiving Day in Ontario, 1859–1914", by Peter A. Stevens 

In the United states of America, few annual events stir the national imagination as thoroughly as Thanksgiving Day. The holiday’s rituals and symbols harken back to the nation’s founding fathers, evoking images of pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and sharing a harvest feast with the surrounding Native peoples in 1621. The myth of this first Thanksgiving, which is a staple in the education of every American schoolchild, informs U.S. citizens that their country is a land of opportunity and new beginnings, a place of piety, abundance, and inclusivity. Other Thanksgiving customs uphold family, consumerism, and competition as core American values. The holiday is a favourite occasion for get-togethers with friends and relatives, with festivities revolving around turkey dinners, Santa Claus parades, and football games, all unfolding against the backdrop of autumn leaves and newly gathered crops. Scholars have parsed American Thanksgiving in considerable detail, and there is a lively debate over which Thanksgiving traditions are rooted in historical fact and which are based in fiction. What is beyond dispute, however, is the overtly nationalistic character of the day.

In the Canadian context, by contrast, Thanksgiving Day is surrounded by ambiguity. Media reports regularly express doubts about the meaning and purpose of the holiday, while Canadians themselves often seem unsure about how their Thanksgiving differs from the American one, and why the two holidays do not share the same date. Thus far, scholars have offered few answers to these questions, as academic treatments of Canadian Thanksgiving are scarce, speculative, and limited in their analysis. Significantly, these works downplay the holiday’s importance as a patriotic celebration, making only passing reference to a “subtle influence of Canadian nationalism” that is evident on Thanksgiving Day. This chapter cannot relate the entire the history of Canadian Thanksgiving, but it does take up the beginning of the story by examining the origins of the holiday in late-nineteenth-century Ontario. In doing so, it reveals that Canadian Thanksgiving initially had a nationalistic focus that it since has largely lost. In the minds of the men who first developed the holiday, Thanksgiving was intended to be a day for celebrating Canada.

The existing literature on national public holidays in North America raises several points that help to illuminate the specific history of Thanksgiving Day in Canada. First, while public holidays often appear to be age-old celebrations that emerged organically out of the national fabric, they are actually examples of invented traditions. According to Eric Hobsbawm, an invented tradition is “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” Holidays, as annual events that are steeped in ritual, constitute a powerful form of invented tradition, for while they seem to be neutral and apolitical, they are actually compelling advertisements for the world views of those who shape and promote them.

Second, public holidays often serve as important tools of nation building. Holiday customs and iconography give members of a population a sense of a shared past and subtly inform them about who they are as a people. By reinforcing messages about common values and experiences, holidays thus encourage individual citizens to imagine themselves as being members of the same political community, or nation. This is not to suggest that the meanings of holidays are static, however. Because holidays are such potent expressions of national beliefs, ambitions, and identity, they become temporal battlegrounds in the cultural contests between different interest groups. Holidays are contested terrain, and their meanings can change over time as they are controlled and influenced by groups that have competing visions for the nation.

Where Canadian Thanksgiving is concerned, the figures who were most responsible for establishing the celebration on an annual basis were Protestant clergymen in Ontario. Their interest in the holiday was primarily a response to two great challenges that faced them, as Canadian church leaders, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. Particularly after Confederation, ministers felt a moral and historical obligation to chart Canada’s course. At the very moment that preachers most sensed a call to lead their country, however, global intellectual developments issued challenges to Christianity so fundamental that they threatened to dissolve many Christians’ faith. The American Thanksgiving holiday revealed to church leaders a means by which they could restore Canadians’ confidence in Christianity and secure their own positions at the helm of the young country.

Ontario clergymen did not simply duplicate the American Thanksgiving festival, which by the 1860s had evolved into a national public holiday. Rather, they recast Thanksgiving as a predominantly religious event and naturalized the holiday by steeping it in Canadian nationalism. Ontarians responded positively to this mix of Protestantism and patriotism, and ministers successfully instituted Thanksgiving as an annual holiday in Ontario. Once Thanksgiving became a yearly event, however, other cultural interest groups increasingly challenged Protestants’ holiday hegemony. As a result of these challenges, the Thanksgiving that Ontarians marked on the eve of the Great War was little like the holiday that clergymen had established several decades earlier. Yet, one aspect of the holiday remained unchanged: its nationalist content. Although Thanksgiving acquired many new meanings and customs, it remained throughout the Victorian period a day for Ontarians to celebrate their status as Canadians.

The early history of Thanksgiving Day in Ontario contributes to discussions of religion in late-nineteenth-century Canada by highlighting the prominent but waning influence of Protestant church leaders within the public sphere. It also complicates our understanding of Canadian patriotism during this critical period in the country’s history. In particular, the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving demonstrate the complex and sometimes contradictory ways that citizens of the new dominion sought to define themselves in relation to both Great Britain and the United states. In this respect, Thanksgiving Day had much in common with Dominion Day, Empire Day, and other public celebrations of the era, which likewise sought to define Canadian identity in reference to both Britain and the United States.

Read Stevens’s full article in Celebrating Canada: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities.