Since ancient times, there have been several rituals of acts of thanksgiving, but none of them have given rise, even in the Christian era, to a formal ceremony fixed in the calendar. Various initiatives were launched here and there, but from the Middle Ages onwards, demonstrations began to appear to celebrate a Thanksgiving Day at a specific time of the year. This moment was determined in many places at the same time by the harvest period.
For the Celts and Slavs, custom was linked to a mother's belief in seeds, while in France and other European countries, the most famous harvest celebration was on November 11, the feast of Saint Martin. In the Middle Ages, it was therefore St. Martin's Day that was used as a day of thanksgiving. It was not until the 17th century that other rites of gratitude to God appeared on a fixed date in the calendar.
A little history
American Thanksgiving Day is different from Thanksgiving Day in Canada. The two festivals are similar and their ultimate goal is the same, although their origins are based on different historical facts.
In the United States, Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday and this holiday comes on the last Thursday in November. Thanksgiving Day, the Feast of the Union, underscores the gratitude of the American people to God for all the benefits the nation has enjoyed. First celebrated in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, New England, it was not until 1863 that the festival was proclaimed a national holiday.
History tells us that English settlers, better known as Pilgrim Fathers, fled England where they were victims of religious persecution and emigrated to America in order to find freedom of worship. These Protestants wanted to practice a purer Christianity. In 1620, they embarked on the Mayflower from the port of Plymouth, England, for the great crossing to America for the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. The crossing was difficult and they landed further north in the so-called "Massachusetts Bay" which they later named Plymouth. Arriving in late autumn, the settlers faced the hostile climate and arid soil and it is said that more than half of them did not survive the first winter. In contact with the Amerindians, they learned to hunt game and then cultivate corn, a resource of the new continent. The following autumn brought an abundant harvest so that the Pilgrim Fathers decided to give thanks to God, convinced that they had survived famine, disease and hostilities against the Amerindians thanks to Providence. The festivities would have lasted a whole week, with abundant food, especially wild turkey and corn in all its forms. Thus was celebrated in 1621 the first Thanksgiving Day.
Until 1789, Thanksgiving days were held sporadically and locally. When harvests were less abundant or settlers faced drought, the festival was not celebrated. Also, apart from local initiatives, Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed each year by the President, who was entitled to set the date. In the 18th century, George Washington adopted Thursday, November 26, 1789 as an official day. However, it was not until October 3, 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln set the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day and made it a national holiday.
In the United States, the festivities include a traditional menu of dishes reminiscent of the Pilgrims' first harvest in 1621: the famous turkey stuffed with cranberry sauce or jams, sweet potatoes, corn, squash and pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving Day is still celebrated with the greatest fervour in New England and since 1924, Macy's department stores have been offering the traditional parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City where bands, show business artists, floats and huge balloons parade.
Since the time of New France, there have been thanksgiving rites celebrated locally in Canada for the abundance of harvests, but no specific day was dedicated to them until the 18th century. The festival first appeared in Nova Scotia in the 1750s, where it was introduced by the Loyalists. As in the United States, the date that sets the day of Thanksgiving is established annually by proclamation by Parliament.
A first proclamation was issued in 1799 to mark the victory of the kingdom and then, until 1867, Thanksgiving Day was irregularly fixed at any time of the year, regardless of the season. Apparently, the reasons for celebrating Thanksgiving Day vary from year to year. We celebrate the end of an epidemic, the restoration of peace as well as more general aspects such as divine graces or an abundant harvest.
From Confederation onwards, the date of celebration, always fixed by proclamation, became clearer. On April 15, 1872, on the occasion of the healing of the Prince of Wales suffering from a serious illness, thanksgiving was celebrated on a Monday. Thereafter, no trace of this festival until 1879. From 1879 onwards, it is celebrated regularly every year, most often on a Thursday in November or October, before being permanently fixed on the second Monday in October in 1957. From 1879 onwards, the festival took on a national rather than a religious character.
From 1879 to 1898: Celebrated on a Thursday in November
From 1899 to 1907: Celebrated on a Thursday in October except in 1901 and 1904 when celebrated on a Thursday in November
From 1908 to 1921: Celebrated on a Monday in October
From 1921 to 1930: Celebrated on the Monday of the week of November 11, i.e. at the same time as Armistice Day
In 1931, Parliament passed an act amending the Armistice Day Act, which definitively established the anniversary of the Armistice as November 11, now known as Remembrance Day. From that date, the two holidays were separated and Thanksgiving Day was re-established by proclamation. The celebration is then celebrated on the second Monday of October except in 1935 when this date coincides with the general elections. It was then postponed to Thursday, October 24, but this resulted in considerable controversy. For the next twenty years, from 1936 to 1956, it was designated the second Monday in October by annual proclamation and then fixed at the same date but permanently in 1957.
From 1879 to 1920, Thanksgiving Day officially had as its purpose an abundant harvest. Until 1930, thanks were given for the end of the First World War, since the celebration coincided with Armistice Day, and from 1931 onward, the official reason for celebrating was to give thanks to Almighty God for the benefits enjoyed by the people of Canada.
In Canada, other than referring to a statutory holiday, Thanksgiving Day is not the subject of popular demonstrations. Unlike the United States, there is no festive tradition associated with it. The festival has become civil and has only a very distant relationship with the end of the harvest; its religious side is hardly preserved except in its name.