Today is a dually celebrated holiday in North America. While Columbus Day was actually on October 12, it is observed as a federal holiday on the second Monday of October in the United States, making today the official day in 2013. While Columbus really didn’t discover America, he has a holiday named for him. At the same time it is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. Canadian Thanksgiving is one of the most popular Canadian holidays but little is known about it outside Canada.
Origins of Canadian Thanksgiving may be more aligned with European tradition than American traditions. Festivals of harvest were long celebrated in Europe, and native peoples on the North American continent celebrated changing seasons and harvest thousands of years before any Europeans landed in North America.
The first documented North American Thanksgiving celebration may have taken place when English explorer Martin Frobisher arrived in Newfoundland in 1578. He was seeking a Northwest Passage through waterways to shorten the trade and travel distance to Europe and Asia. Although European explorers were beginning to circumnavigate the globe, there still was not extensive understanding of the size or geography of the North American continent.
Frobisher wanted to give thanks for his safe arrival to the New World. On his third voyage, Frobisher headed to the Frobisher Bay area of Baffin Island in the present Canadian Territory of Nunavut, He set out with the intention of starting a small settlement. His ships encountered ice, horrible weather, and other maladies. Eventually survivors gathered and the voyage’s preacher summoned the group to be thankful for their survival.
French settlers, having crossed the ocean and arrived in Canada with explorer Samuel de Champlain, in 1604 onwards also held huge feasts of thanks. They even formed the Order of Good Cheer and gladly shared their food with their First Nations neighbors. Both these celebrations predate the American version commemorating the arrival of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, MA by many years.
Canadian Thanksgiving was celebrated either in late October or early November for hundreds of years until an official date was designated in 1879 as a national holiday. But then on January 31, 1957, Canadian Parliament announced that on the second Monday in October, Thanksgiving would be "a day of general thanksgiving to almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed." Thanksgiving was moved to the second Monday in October because after the World Wars, Remembrance Day (November 11th) and Thanksgiving kept falling in the same week.
Most of Canada automatically celebrates Canadian Thanksgiving as a statutory holiday, but it is optional in the Eastern provinces of Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
Geography also plays a key role in Canada’s Thanksgiving falling in mid-October rather than late November. Canada is located primarily north of the 49th parallel. Because of the different climate, harvest arrives earlier than in the United States. Since Thanksgiving for Canadians is more about giving thanks for the harvest season than the arrival of the Pilgrims, it seems logical to celebrate the holiday in October.
Thanksgiving traditions are similar in both countries. Family gatherings, parades, huge meals, endless football games, and other fall related activities dominate celebrations.
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