The History of Thanksgiving

by A. D. “Tony Doerksen

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1975, Volume 21, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In the crisp atmosphere of dawn by a sheltered vale on the outskirts of a mid 18th century North American eastern coastal settlement a small flock of Meleagris gallopava (wild turkeys) stirred uneasily at the sound of approaching footsteps. Soon their tough, elastic necks would be unceremoniously slashed open with a razor edged hunting knife and after meticulous preparation the choicest portions of their remains would grace the table of the first official thanksgiving festival in this British possession in North America. And the celebrants of this predominantly British community of Halifax fared sumptuously as they joyfully observed the occasion of the conclusion of the Peace of Paris on February 18, 1763, which turned Canada over to Great Britain.

But the scene of the first formal thanksgiving service in the "New World" was held in Newfoundland, the first colony of the British Empire in 1578. "It was held by a clergyman who accompanied the expedition under Sir Martin Frobisher a noted navigator and explorer who brought the very first English immigrants to settle in the new world. It must have been an impressive albeit a strange ceremony ... Frobisher and his rough sailors no doubt took part in this service although they might not be so much impressed as the new settlers in having reached land again even though the land was strange and their hearts were full of fears and anxieties." (The Ottawa Citizen, November 9, 1928 )

Four years prior to the Peace of Paris celebration the British held, at the capture of Quebec (1759), a service in the Ursuline chapel "to give thanks to Almighty God for victory." The following year a similar service was to celebrate the fall of Montreal.

We are not exactly told when that tradition died out but we do know that further west in Lower Canada (now Quebec) the first thanksgiving was proclaimed on December 22, 1798 and observed on January 10, 1799. It was a celebration of "the signal victory over our enemy and for the manifold and inestimable blessings which our kingdom and provinces have received and continued to receive."

Upper Canada (now Ontario) first proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving on May 17, 1816 and observed it exactly a month and a day later in gratitude to God for the end of the war between Great Britain and Napolean.

"Then on December 14, 1849, the Governor General proclaimed a holiday to be observed on January 3, 1850 for the purpose of giving thanks to the Almighty 'for His having in his great mercy removed the grievous disease of cholera.' A holiday was proclaimed on June 4, 1856 to give thanks for the conclusion of the Crimean War" (Ottawa Journal, October 8, 1964).

But the basic idea of the present Thanksgiving Day — the custom of giving thanks for the blessing of an abundant harvest was first made the subject of a proclamation by the Governor General in 1859 and "this may be regarded as the inception of the holiday in Canada. It was held on November 3" wrote W. A. Craick in the Ottawa Journal of October 8, 1964. The proclamations were repeated and the holiday observed in 1860, 1861, 1863, and 1865. Quite some time elapsed before another such day was proclaimed.

Just how much the American festival — the observance of the anniversary of the first harvest concluded by the Pilgrim Fathers and their liberty to worship freely — influenced the unofficial observance of a day of Thanksgiving in Canada after 1816 we are not sure but we do know by private correspondence that a general thanksgiving and harvest home festival was being "unofficially" observed usually in November by congregations of Protestant assemblies.

The Reverend John Black, minister of Kildonan Presbyterian Church, in an informal letter dated November 7, 1857 to James Ross, (who was in Toronto at the time) son of Alexander Ross, a prominent Winnipeg citizen, mentioned that he was "most happy of your restored health" and followed this comment with the news that Donald, James' friend was in church on Thanksgiving Day — implying that it was a recent occurrence.

Another letter to James which was by curious coincidence written on the same day, reveals that Thanksgiving was observed on Thursday, November 5 that year. Jemima Ross penned the following words — among others — to her older brother in Toronto.

"Last Thursday we had two services, a day of Thanksgiving for God's mercies to us, two fine sermons. Donald Fraser (was) there. I think he is getting much better, he has been at church a good many times. We went to church in the carriole yesterday, cold, snowing and drifting; again another winter we are privileged to see."

These brief glimpses into the past reveal that the question of the merits of a thanksgiving observance was positively alive in the Protestant community of Manitoba and while this fact may still beg evidence of an official or at least a general observance, it might easily be assumed that the festival was observed by participants outside this fold.

After Confederation, when the four existing eastern provinces were finally united, the first Federal Thanksgiving proclamation was issued on March 1, 1872 in thanks to God for restoring the Prince of Wales to health. (It was actually observed on April 15 following.) The previous year, on the 24th of October the infant province of Manitoba independently issued her first proclamation to observe a day of Thanksgiving for Thursday, November 16 — mute testimony of the influence of its traditional observance in that area in previous years.

The historic proclamation stated:

"To our Loyal and Loving subjects, the people of the Province of Manitoba, GREETING: Whereas it has pleased Almighty God, in His great mercy, to vouchsafe to the people of this Province, the blessings of an abundant harvest during the season now past, and whereas, it is proper and becoming that some public and united expression should be given of devout thankfulness to the Giver of all good for the mercies so bestowed, We have thought fit to set apart Thursday, the SIXTEENTH day of NOVEMBER next, as a day of Thanksgiving.

And, we earnestly invite all Our Loving Subjects, the People of this Province, to unite in observing such day, and in devoting the same to the purposes of Thanksgiving and Prayer.

And we proclaim the said day to be a Public Holiday, and authorize the close of the public Provincial officies on that day. IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF We have caused these, Our Letters to be made Patent and the Great Seal of Manitoba to be hereunto affixed.

Witness, Our Trusty and Well-Beloved, the Honorable ADAMS GEORGE ARCHIBALD, Lieutenant-Governor of our Province of Manitoba, Member of Our Privy Council for Canada, etc., etc., etc., at Our Government House at Fort Garry, this TWENTY-FOURTH day of OCTOBER, in the year of Our Lord, one thousand, eight-hundred and seventy-one, and in the Thirty-Fifth year of Our Reign. By Command, (Signed) THOS. HOWARD. Provincial Secretary." "

(The Seal of the Province, incidentally, read: "Victoria, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, QUEEN, De-fender of the Faith etc., etc., etc.," and was signed by the Lieutenant Governor.)

The following year the Reverend George Bryce, a Presbyterian minister and one time President of the Manitoba Historical Society, became a little anxious about the government's intentions regarding the observance of the day due to its comparative tardiness in making a proclamation and upon initiating the support of the other two Protestant churches in the province implored the Administrator of the Province, Chief Justice Morris regarding the possibility of observing another day of Thanksgiving. It read:

Fort Garry
November 9th, 1872

Dear Sir:

The Three Protestant Churches in the Province have agreed through their clergy on Thursday, the 5th day of December, as a suitable day for returning thanks to God for the mercies of the past year, and in behalf of the Presbyterian Church I beg to request, in order to its better observance, that that day may be graciously set apart by Public Proclamation, as was done last year.

I have the honor to be your obedient servant,
George Bryce

The Hon. Chief Justice Morris
Administrator of the Province of Manitoba.

The government speedily responded by issuing a proclamation on November 15 to observe a day of Thanksgiving on December 5. It was the latest date in the year that that an official day of Thanksgiving was ever observed in Manitoba.

A diligent search of the Manitoba Gazette failed to yield any thanksgiving proclamations for the three following years. There was, however, a day of "humiliation and prayer" proclaimed on July 21, 1875 for the people of Manitoba to humble themselves and supplicate God to stay a locust plague of unprecedented proportions. Excellent crops were being ravaged for the third year in a row and the 1875 invasion proved to be most devastating. Whether or not these facts account for the corresponding absence of a thanksgiving proclamation in those years (if the plague was stayed, there should have been a corresponding day of Thanksgiving) is something to ponder but in 1876 — a relatively "plagueless" year — the spiritually arid era of public thanklessness came to an official end when the provincial government at long last proclaimed on October 24 another day of Thanksgiving to be observed on November 16. The original 1871 proclamation text was used again as in 1872.

In 1877 a day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed for Thursday, November 22 when it corresponded quite closely with the date for the American festival for the first time in Manitoba. The following year it was proclaimed for observance on December 4 — another late date as in 1872.

In 1879, when the Federal government proclaimed the first official day of general thanksgiving Manitoba again (inadvertently?) exhibited her (traditional?) youthful independence by politely ignoring the federal proclamation text and proclaiming its own day of Thanksgiving for November 6 — perhaps by coincidence the same date as was federally proclaimed by using its own original proclamation text of 1871. This procedure was, curiously, repeated the following year although the date proclaimed — November 3 — corresponded with the federally proclaimed date for a thanks-giving observance.

That this (the corresponding dates) indicated a very gradual softening of attitude on the part of the Manitoba government and not just a coincidence is evidenced by the fact that on October 13, 1881 the provincial executives approved and used in their own proclamation part of the federal proclamation text and the date set for the observance of Thanksgiving which was October 20—the first official Thanksgiving to be observed that early. The text, which the federal government had been using since 1879 significantly designates the day as a "day of General Thanksgiving" as distinguished from a proclamation of a special thanksgiving observance as was the case in 1872 when they gave thanks for the restoration of the Prince of Wales to perfect health.

It said:

"To all to whom these presents shall come on whom the same may in anywise concern — GREETING: Whereas by Proclamation of His Excellency the Governor-General, Thursday the twentieth day of October, instant, has been set apart as a DAY OF GENERAL THANKSGIVING.

And whereas it is our duty to acknowledge publicly to ALMIGHTY GOD our thankfulness for the bountiful harvest with which He has blessed the Province during the present year.

Now Know Ye that We have thought fit by and with the advice and consent of Our Executive Council of Our said Province, to appoint THURSDAY, the twentieth day of October instant, as a day fitting to be observed as a day of PUBLIC THANKSGIVING TO ALMIGHTY GOD, for the aforesaid benefits and blessings and we do invite all Our loving subjects in the said Province of Manitoba to observe the said day as such."

"Bountiful Harvest" was hardly an exaggeration in this description of the yield for 1881. From 51,293 acres of wheat, 1,033,673 bushels were harvested; the amount of oats, barley and potatoes was 1,270,268 bushels, 253,604 bushels and 556,193 bushels respectively. Not bad for an area that was little more than a trackless wilderness a decade and a half before.

The following two years no proclamation was issued. Whether this was because they felt that a federal proclamation was sufficient or because of the devastating floods that large areas of Manitoba experienced in those two years is a matter of speculation.

In 1885 and 1886 proclamations were issued using the federal text. However, in 1887, in spite of this assurance of loyalty, the Hon. James Cox Aikens, Governor-General, found it necessary for some curious reason to notify by letter through the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba the Manitoba government of its intentions to proclaim Thursday the 17th day of November as a national day of Thanksgiving. The letter, addressed to Hon. John Norquay, the provincial secretary said:

October 8, 1887

Sir: I am directed by the Lieutenant-Governor to advise you, for its information of the government that His Excellency, the Governor General has been pleased to appoint Thursday, the Seventeenth day of November next to be observed as a day of general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.

A copy of His Excellency's Proclamation is enclosed herewith.

I have the honor to be Sir
Your obedient Servant
Lawrence J. Clarke
Priv. Sec'y.

The Honorable
John Norquay,
Provincial Secretary

Of course, Manitoba obliged the Governor General and proclaimed the appointed date.

If Canada experienced a "bountiful harvest" in 1887, Manitoba received a lion's share of it — like 14,000,000 bushels of wheat; 5,780,000 bushels of oats; 2,250,000 bushels of barley and 2,750,000 bushels of potatoes.

So if there was any apprehension experienced by the governor general and the federal government over the possibility of Manitoba declaring its own day of Thanksgiving or not declaring one at all, it was not because Manitoba wasn't blessed in 1887. A better explanation of the purpose of their special letter is that a special thanksgiving was observed in 1887 on June 21 to mark the 5th anniversary of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne (repeated a decade later on the 60th anniversary). But the people of Canada were fond of the autumn harvest home festival and so the Governor General probably found it appropriate to remind Manitoba of the governments desire to abide by the tradition irregardless of the special thanksgiving on June 21.

By 1898, the federal proclamation text had been slightly altered and shortened and it set Thursday, November 24 aside as a day of Thanksgiving. Since this is the last Thursday in November, it corresponded exactly as it had done for a number of years with the day set for the American festival. This is unquestionable evidence of American influence on Canada and the irresistible temptation to imitate the customs of our neighbors.

But not for long. "It was found to be too late and too near Christmas", wrote Anne Foster in "High Days and Holidays in Canada". The following year, 1899, the date was changed to October and generally set for a Thursday. Then, probably in order to gain a long weekend out of the observance it was set for a Monday — the third Monday in October — which was the first time it had ever been officially observed on the second day of the week.

Unidentified Indian Church, Thanksgiving Day, 1910.

After World War I Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed for the Monday of the week in which Armistice Day occurred. Then, by the Armistice Day Act, June 4, 1921 Thanksgiving Day and Armistice Day became emerged.

"Throughout Canada in each and every year, the Monday in the week in which the 11th day of November shall occur ... shall be a legal holiday and shall be kept and observed as such under the name of Armistice Day. The holiday commonly called Thanksgiving Day being a day usually appointed in the month of October or November by proclamation as a day of general thanksgiving, shall whenever appointed be proclaimed and observed for and on Armistice Day."

So that year November 7 and the following year November 6 Armistice Day was Thanksgiving Day.

However, in 1931 the act establishing Armistice Day was amended and the name of the holiday changed to Remembrance Day and Thanksgiving Day was once again yearly proclaimed as an October holiday. In fact, September 12, 1931 was the first time since World War I that Thanksgiving day was proclaimed for the second Monday in October (which was October 12) and with the exception of 1935 (when the proclamation to observe it on October 14 was revoked due to the election on that day and changed to Thursday, October 24) it was proclaimed yearly for observance on the second Monday of October for 26 consecutive years.

January 31, 1957 is a historic date as it relates to the history of Thanks-giving Day in Canada. For on that date the second Monday of October was permanently appointed to be observed as day of general thanksgiving each year. It said:

Thanksgiving Day
Proclaimed for Observance

ELIZABETH THE SECOND, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, Canada and her other Realms and Territories QUEEN, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. TO ALL TO WHOM These Presents shall come or whom the same may in anywise concern — GREETING:


Deputy Attorney General

Whereas it hath pleased Almighty God in His great goodness to vouchsafe many blessings throughout the years to the people of Canada;

We therefore considering that these blessings vouchsafe to the people of Canada do call for a solemn and public acknowledgement have thought fit, by and with the advice of Our Privy Council for Canada, to appoint the second Monday in October in each and every year as a day of general thanksgiving; and We do hereby appoint the second Monday in October in the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and fifty-seven and each year thereafter as a day of general thanksgiving to Almighty God for the blessings with which the people of Canada have been favoured; and We do hereby invite all Our people of Canada to observe the said day each year as a day of general thanksgiving. IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF We have caused these Our Letters to be made Patent and the Great Seal of Canada to be hereunto affixed WITNESS: Our Right Trusty and Well-beloved Counsellor, Vincent Massey, Member of Our Order of the Companions of Honour, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada.

AT OUR GOVERNMENT HOUSE, in Our City of Ottawa, this Thirty-first day of January in the year of Our Lord one thousand nine hundred and fifty-seven and in the Fifth year of our Reign.

By Command
Under Secretary of State


This year we are celebrating the 104th anniversary of the first officially proclaimed general thanksgiving in Manitoba and the 103rd anniversary of the first officially proclaimed special thanksgiving for all of Canada.

Page revised: 20 July 2009