As we sit down to creation’s bounty in the form of a magnificent harvest dinner this month, let’s be thankful we can plan for this fine-weather feast on the second Monday in October. Historically, the date of Canada’s day of thanks has been anything but fixed.
In fact, it was not until 1957 that Parliament first officially set the permanent date we now observe, with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker declaring it “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”
Before that, the celebration was decidedly, in Hemingway’s words, “a movable feast.” Often wrongly disparaged as lacking the deep historical roots of American Thanksgiving, English Canada’s first celebration occurred 43 years before the Pilgrim Fathers touched American shores. It’s linked to 1578, when British North West Passage explorer Sir Martin Frobisher declared a day of thanksgiving for cross-Atlantic and Arctic tribulations survived. An Anglican service was held near Baffin Island by the Rev. Robert Wolfall, expedition chaplain.
For the next 300 years, Thanksgiving dates were ad hoc, and linked, variously, to themes such as military victories, royal jubilees and even the recovery from typhoid of HRH Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1872, when it was observed in the month of April. By the late 19th century, the day was generally celebrated in late October or in early November. But sometimes it came later in November—closer to the U.S. holiday and just in time to kick off the pre-Christmas shopping season, with newspaper ads urging folk to start stocking up early on yuletide treats. In 1879 it was declared an official celebration on November 6, but that did little to fix its date.
In 1921, Thanksgiving was set for the Monday of the week of November 11 to coincide with the Armistice (later Remembrance) Day celebration. But holidays, like good red wine, need to breathe, so 10 years later the two observances were separated. From 1931 onward, the date was fixed by annual proclamation, generally falling on October’s second Monday—except for 1935, of course, when the Bennett-King federal election postponed it.
So as you raise a glass in gratitude for Canada’s plenty, be thankful, too, that the day is now permanently pegged to T.S. Eliot’s “golden October,” not “sombre November.”