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Thanksgiving Origins

Posted on: October 09, 2016

Category: Theology

Thanksgiving Origins

Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada occurs at different times. It's the fourth Thursday of November in the U.S. and the second Monday of October in Canada. When I was a boy I was always told that the harvest time was earlier in Canada, hence the earlier date for the same holiday. As I grew up, I learned that this common assumption neither holds water nor talks turkey, so to speak.

The different dates relate to different cultural and historic experiences. For Canadians, Thanksgiving is not really a religious holiday. It is a harvest festival, and it has its modern roots in Newfoundland when Martin Frobisher landed there in 1578. In most of Canada Thanksgiving is a statutory holiday, but in Atlantic Canada, including Newfoundland, Thanksgiving is optional. This reflects the origins of Thanksgiving Day in the common rather than legislative history of Canada. It was only with a "proclamation" of the Governor General in 1957 that the second Monday of October became normative.

In the United States Thanksgiving, though now separated from religion, still holds a more sacred status; in addition, it has a legislative history. Thanksgiving in the United States had a customary but no legal date until President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law on December 26, 1941. Since then, all 50 States of the United States observe Thanksgiving on the same day as a statutory holiday. The first observance of American Thanksgiving is commonly dated 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Wampanoag nation helped the English colonists survive the isolation and challenging winters in their new home. While the American holiday was also a harvest festival, it was during the Civil War that it became a national day of giving praise and thanks to God. Canada, by contrast, has always lacked this aspect of the holiday (although, of course, many churches make it about God as did the Govenor General in 1957).

Another interesting piece of trivia is that the Loyalists from the United States brought into Canada, during the American Revolution, the custom of eating turkey on Thanksgiving Day. The Loyalists also brought their accents and ways of spelling into Canada, which influenced the unique Canadian sound and the Canadian way of combining U.S. and U.K. spelling.

Given this background, perhaps there are some interesting things to think about this Thanksgiving weekend in Canada and the approaching Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. Number one is why do we relate this holiday to God when, in both countries, it originates in nature? While Thanksgiving can remind us of the miracle of life we all share and the thankfulness we all can feel, is it somewhat of a tragedy that Christianity, as it developed in North America, tended not to allow Christians to celebrate the miracle of nature? Why is the holiday about human beings rather than the planet earth? Thanksgiving could be about environmental care. It is usually about human beings eating a lot.

Another question to consider is how Thanksgiving tempts us to forget about the international and common origin of this custom. Thanksgiving was already celebrated in the United Kingdom before any Europeans settled in North America, and the first nations already in North America also, already, celebrated Thanksgiving. No one invented it, and it belongs to the human family as a whole. Everywhere in human history there is a record of harvest festivals that account for the origin and express the spirit of the official Thanksgiving. Granted, every culture can turn to its history and account for how this common festival took the form and name it presently holds, but this should not allow human beings to slip into nationalism where misunderstanding, prejudice, and pride easily cultivate. Thanksgiving originates in the common human experience of nature. It could unite our world and remind us all of compassion.

We are often quick to relate Thanksgiving to religious observances, but we are often slow to relate it to nature and compassion. Yet, the truly "religious" acts in relation to Thanksgiving are to care for nature and to hold compassion for all.


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