Thanksgiving is the only truly and completely North American feast that my family celebrates: all others have their roots deep in European ground, and are either specific national dinners like St. Patrick’s Day, or broader Christian celebrations like Easter and Christmas.
Thanksgiving dinner is the most rigidly traditional meal that most North American families share. For Easter and Christmas, families choose between ham and turkey, or possibly roast beef. They may serve scallop potatoes, or mash. Dessert could be any number of pies or cakes. The specifics depend on the family, where they are on the continent, and where their ancestors came from. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is more uniform, and centres on a few distinctly New World ingredients and preparations.
Origins of Thanksgiving in Canada
There was a time in our history when thanksgiving services and meals were called to celebrate a specific event. The most famous example in Canadian history occurred in 1578, during Martin Frobisher’s third expedition to find the Northwest Passage. His ship was separated from the others in the convoy for weeks. When they finally reunited, a service of Thanksgiving was conducted by the chaplain, and all the men ate dinner together. This story always seems to come up in discussions of Canadian Thanksgiving, even though truthfully it has nothing to do with the modern celebration. Some other examples:
- 1763, in Halifax, to mark the Treaty of Paris and the end of the Seven Years’ War
- 1816, in Upper Canada, for the end of the war between Britain and France
- 1856, for British victory in the Crimean War.
Thanksgiving wasn’t made an annual, statutory holiday until 1879, and over the next eighty years it would change exact dates many times, from October, through November (sometimes marked in conjunction with Remembrance Day, sometimes celebrated American-style, late in the month), and sometimes even in December. The modern date, the second Monday of October, was set by Parliament in 1957.
Thanksgiving in America
Canadians are very familiar with the story of the first American Thanksgiving, and the imagery of the severely-dressed pilgrims feasting with their native American hosts has crept north of the border.
Until the 1860s, Thanksgiving was celebrated by all the northern states, but not necessarily on the same day. In 1863 Lincoln proclaimed two days of Thanksgiving: one on August 6 for Union victory at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and one on November 26, to commemorate a year “filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”.
In 1864, when General Sherman captured Atlanta, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November a national day of Thanksgiving for the second year in a row. Lincoln would die the following spring, but future presidents kept the tradition in his honour.
Then there was a disastrous year when the last Thursday of November fell on November 30, which was the fifth Thursday of the month. Thanksgiving had been promoted by retailers as the start of the Christmas shopping season as early as the turn of the century. With only twenty business days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, retailers feared a drop in total sales, so the National Retail Dry Goods Association lobbied to have the celebration moved back one week, to the fourth Thursday of the month. As often happens in the States, it became a comically partisan issue (#shutdown), with about half the states celebrating on the fourth Thursday, half on the fifth.
President Roosevelt later legislated that Thanksgiving would always be the fourth Thursday of November, whether it was the last Thursday of the month or not.
Thanksgiving Dinner: The Essential Components
Obviously there is lots of variation between household and household, and between region and region across North America, but to my mind there are six absolutely essential components to a Thanksgiving meal:
1. Turkey. The most festive roast in the North American repertoire. My preferred method is discussed here.
2. Gravy. The indispensable accoutrement to roast turkey.
3. Cranberries. Somewhat polarizing, but universally agreed to be an essential component. Bog cranberries are native to the northeastern US and parts of Canada. I use highbush cranberries.
4. Stuffing. Also known as dressing. Post forthcoming.
5. Mashed Potatoes. Post forthcoming.
6. Pumpkin Pie. Discussed here.
Other Notable Ingredients.
- Corn, especially in the form of cornbread.
- Apples. Canadian Thanksgiving falls at the tail end of Edmonton’s apple season. Cider goes well with all the dishes listed above. Also, apple pie.
- Sweet Potato.
1. All my info on the history of Thanksgiving in Canada came from the following fantastic little book: Duncan, Dorothy. Feasting and Fasting: Canada’s Heritage Celebrations. ©2010 Dorothy Duncan. Dundurn Press, Toronto, ON.
2. I’m practically positive that no one reads the footnotes that I write, so I’m perfectly confident writing my source for information on the history of American Thanksgiving.
The Bathroom Readers’ Institute. Uncle John’s Ultimate Bathroom Reader, 8th Edition. ©1996 The Bathroom Readers’ Press, Ashland, OR. There is a fascinating article called “The Evolution of Thanksgiving” on page 209.