York UniversityMedia Releases

Latest Release Release Archives

A Canadian Original or a U.S. Copy? Forget the Pilgrims. Canada's Own Thanksgiving Tradition Shaped by Ontario's Protestant Clergy, Refined by Commercial, State Interests: York U. History Scholar

TORONTO, October 5, 1999 -- While the Pilgrims occupy centre stage in traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations, it was Ontario's Protestant Clergy, and later, commercial and state interests who helped shape Canada's own unique and inchoate tradition of Thanksgiving in the mid 1800s.

In a finely crafted research paper, A Wealth of Meanings: Thanksgiving in Ontario, 1859-1914, 23-year-old York University PhD History candidate Peter Stevens reveals that Ontario church leaders appropriated the American autumn holiday and transformed it into an instrument of Canadian nationalism. And in doing so, Stevens has laid bare numerous myths and mistaken notions about the origins of our Thanksgiving holiday, which was first celebrated in the United Provinces of Canada in 1859.

Contrary to recent claims by several Canadian periodicals, Canada's Thanksgiving Day did not originate with English explorer Martin Frobisher staging a ceremony of thanksgiving upon landing at Baffin Island in 1578. Stevens concludes that Canada does not have an historical equivalent to the American legend of the Puritans staging the first thanksgiving at Plymouth, Mass. in 1621.

"Protestant clergymen, more than any other cultural authorities, deserve credit for establishing Thanksgiving Day as an annual celebration in Ontario," writes Stevens, noting that their inspiration did, in fact, come from New England. But, notes Stevens, they did not simply duplicate the American Thanksgiving festival. Church leaders, particularly after Confederation, felt it their moral and historical duty to shape the Canadian identity in the Christian mould and saw the adoption of the Thanksgiving holiday as a way to do this. They created Canadian Thanksgiving as an exclusively religious event that was white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, pro-British and often anti-American in nationalist intent.

The Protestant clergy successfully lobbied the Canadian government to create Canada's first, national Thanksgiving in 1859. But it was only proclaimed sporadically in the ensuing years, as church, state and commerce each wrestled for control of the holiday. By the 1870s, American holiday traditions, such as family gatherings for turkey dinner and stories of the pilgrims, took hold in Canada, creating both commercial opportunities for businesses, and a way for Catholics to celebrate the day as a non-religious event. With this, the Protestant clergy lost exclusive control of Thanksgiving Day. They lost all influence over the holiday in 1908, when the government appointed Thanksgiving for a Monday rather than a Thursday. Transportation companies had asked for the change, feeling that a long weekend would increase holiday travel. Churches opposed the move, fearing that it would hurt church attendance, as it did. In 1957, Parliament passed legislation to make Thanksgiving an annual holiday celebrated on the second Monday of October, eliminating the need for annual proclamations.

To Protestant clergymen, the early history of Thanksgiving is, perhaps, a tragedy, since they lost control over the holiday. From another perspective, it is a story of triumph. Catholics, workers, ethnic minorities and other groups excluded from the clergy's notions of Thanksgiving and Canadian identity democratized the holiday and adopted their own holiday practices, asserting that they, too, had something to contribute to Canadian society and culture.

Stevens' research on the origins of Thanksgiving also unearthed a wealth of detail about Canada-U.S. relations and the competing cultural interests in Canada during the Victorian era and beyond. Stevens reminds us that all national holidays, even Christmas, are "invented traditions" designed to bolster the status quo by furnishing it with the patina of antiquity. "Invented traditions seek sanction from the authority of history, and therein lies both their power and their pretence," says Stevens.

Scant scholarly work has been done on the origins of Thanksgiving in Canada, and Stevens' research is the first serious treatment of the history of the origins and evolution of Thanksgiving in Ontario. For example, few Canadians know that from 1921 to 1931, Armistice Day -- now Remembrance Day -- and Thanksgiving Day coincided, but the different emotions evoked by these two events proved incompatible. The two holidays were separated again in 1932. A summary of the key dates associated with Canadian Thanksgiving is attached.


For more information, please contact:

Peter Stevens
Home: (416) 535-9560
email: peterste@yorku.ca

Sine MacKinnon
Director, Media Relations
York University
(416) 736-2100, ext. 22087
email: sinem@yorku.ca

Susan Bigelow
Media Relations
York University
(416) 736-2100, ext. 22091
email: sbigelow@yorku.ca


Key Dates and Historical Highlights of Canadian Thanksgiving

  • While the annual, harvest-related Thanksgiving idea emerged out of the United States, ad hoc days of Thanksgiving have a long history in the British tradition: in 1759, King George II appointed October 25 "A Day of Public Thanksgiving for the Success of His Majesty's Arms, More particularly in the Reduction of Quebec, the Capital of Canada" (the Conquest); in 1856, Queen Victoria appointed June 4 a day of Thanksgiving in recognition of Britain's victory in the Crimean War.

  • Canada's Thanksgiving varied from year to year and came as late as December 6. On a few occasions, the holiday coincided with the American Thanksgiving, celebrated on the last Thursday of November, beginning in the 1870s. The Canadian holiday generally came too late in the year for Canadians to spend the day outdoors, so beginning in 1899, the government scheduled the holiday for mid-October in most years.

  • The Protestant clergymen of Ontario identified the following as Canadian characteristics: Anglo-Saxon racial origins; British heritage; loyal, law-abiding people (in contrast to Americans); a strong, hardy, serious people due to their northern climate; Protestant and thus, anti-Catholic; chosen by God to create a country on earth in the image of the biblical land of Canaan. The Preachers interpreted American slavery and the U.S. civil war as evidence of Canadian superiority.

  • The clergymen and other cultural leaders of the day viewed Canadian nationalism primarily as a celebration of the British Empire, which they saw as a progressive, civilizing force. They believed that Canada would eventually supplant Britain as leader of the empire. While American preachers had looked to the past and the story of the pilgrims in their nationalist sermons, Canadian preachers looked to the future and the glorious Canadian destiny.

  • When the Government of the United Provinces of Canada created the nation's first Thanksgiving in 1859, the declaration asked all Canadians to spend the holiday in "public and solemn" recognition of God's mercies. Some Ontarians objected to this government request, saying it blurred the distinction between church and state that was so important to many Canadians.

  • Thanksgiving was touted as a time for urban Canadians to consider their compatriots in rural Canada. Pastors frequently discussed the harvest and agricultural practices in romantic terms as an essential link between city and country folk.

  • Sabbath and holy day desecration was usually an explosive issue in "Toronto the Good" when secular activities became part of Thanksgiving in the 1870s. Once Thanksgiving became an annual event, Ontarians could make secular plans for the holiday, which in turn enabled businesses and community groups to stage regular activities that had little to do with the church.

  • Ontario newspapers in the mid-1870s familiarized Canadians with turkey dinners, family gatherings and Puritan imagery, by running histories of the Thanksgiving. But they maintained the British focus of Canadian nationalism by insisting that the Pilgrims had been English, whereas the Americans always portrayed the Pilgrims as the first Americans.

  • Canadians' adoption of family Thanksgiving dinners opened up commercial opportunities, and businesses did all they could to promote holiday consumption. Railways sold Thanksgiving tickets at cut rates and departments stores designated almost anything as "Thanksgiving goods" without which one's holiday would not be complete.

  • Catholics celebrated Thanksgiving as a non-religious event. During several years, when the government appointed the holiday on the eve of All Saints', a fast day, Catholics complained bitterly about losing their turkey dinners and condemned the government for not accommodating Catholic Canadians.

  • Industrialization, primarily in the last quarter of the 19th century, introduced commercial amusements such as dance halls, dime museums and vaudeville houses which began operating on holidays like Thanksgiving, drawing many Ontarians, particularly working-class families, away from church. Sporting activities, fall fairs, menageries and carnivals joined in the competition for the holiday consumer.

  • Thanksgiving football games, a tradition that began in New York in 1876, eventually became important in Canadian celebrations, although Canadian football matches never became as chaotic as American ones, which sometimes resulted in deaths on the field and spectator riots in the streets. As in the U.S., football in Canada was intimately associated with national pride and nation building.

  • By the late 1880s, the most significant Thanksgiving event in Ontario was the Canadian Military's annual "Sham Battle". This event also stoked Canadians' nationalist-imperialist sentiments, especially since the Canadian military was still under British direction until the early 20th century. Typically, tens of thousands of spectators would watch up to six different regiments in High Park or the Don Valley using blank ammunition in a mock battle for control of Toronto.
  • | Welcome to York University | Latest Release | Release Archives |

    [to York's Home Page]