While historically thought of as a Fall harvest celebration, Thanksgiving is increasingly viewed as a holiday to express and give thanks to friends and family. Often synonymous with roast turkey and pumpkin pie, the Canadian holiday is attributed to English explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578 who first offered a pray of thanks when his ship reached Baffin Island.

But based on recent research, Canadian Thanksgiving’s history is now being seen in a whole new light. In his paper, A Wealth of Meanings: Thanksgiving in Ontario, 1859-1914, Peter Stevens, a PhD History candidate at York University, finds the true origin stems more from religious assertion than an inclusive public celebration.

And although Frobisher originally ‘gave thanks’, it seems unlikely that this was truly the founding moment for Canadian Thanksgiving tradition. Instead it seems the notion of Frobisher as the founding father of Thanksgiving is, “designed to bolster the status quo by furnishing it with the patina of antiquity.”

Thanksgiving History – Time to Give Thanks and Praise God

The first use of “Thanksgiving” in English text occurs in a 1533 translation of the Bible and is intended as an act of giving thanks to God. In eighteenth-century England, Thanksgiving events marked periodic occasions to celebrate the end of war or the end of a monarch’s struggle with sickness. This British Thanksgiving tradition for marking the end of strife extended to the English colonies as well.

In the United States, Thanksgiving tradition varied from Britain and started as a means to give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest. The first Thanksgiving occurred in 1621 when Governor Bradford invited local Indians to a three-day feast with the settlers. The event occurred periodically over time but was not formalized as an annual November event until the mid-nineteenth century.

Canadian Thanksgiving Emerges – Giving Thanks to God

Canadians followed Britain during the early Thanksgiving celebrations in the nineteenth century and actually used the holiday as a means to celebrate the conclusions of war or other struggles. The early Thanksgiving celebrations occurred at periodic intervals and never on an annual basis.

By the mid-nineteenth century, members of the Ontario clergy wished to formalize the holiday as a religious event, as a means to thank God. According to York University, “Protestant clergy successfully lobbied the Canadian government to create Canada’s first, national Thanksgiving in 1859.” The Thanksgiving celebrations where held sporadically over the next decade.

Canadian Thanksgiving Gains National Identity and Blends with American Thanksgiving

Canada’s confederation in 1867 brought with it the emergence of a national identity. During the 1870s, US Thanksgiving tradition began to firmly establish itself as a time to spend with family, sharing feasts centered largely on turkey. The commercial focus on the American holiday grew quickly during this time and it spread throughout North America, with newspapers and travel businesses marketing the holiday. Canada soon followed America by holding its Thanksgiving annually on a Thursday in November from 1879-1898.

The cold November weather in Canada was not viewed as ideal and many Canadians favored October for its more temperate climate. Canada’s first break from American tradition came in 1899 when the holiday was moved from a Thursday in November to a Thursday in October.

The final major shift in the holiday occurred in 1908 when commercial and trade organizations pressured Parliament to move the holiday from Thursday to Monday, “in order to give three days in which tradesmen and others could enjoy that holiday.” Additionally, this served the needs of the travel industry who could now advertise long weekend deals.

In 1931, Canadian Thanksgiving received its final change. For many years Thanksgiving had been celebrated in conjunction with Armistice Day, and in 1931 the two holidays were formally separated. Armistice Day was changed to November 11 and Thanksgiving set as the second Monday of October.

As an emerging country in the nineteenth century, Canada adapted the Thanksgiving tradition from Britain and over time complemented it with American customs. While Frobisher is commonly viewed as the founder of the tradition, new research depicts its formalization as an ultimately failed religious assertion that eventually morphed into the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday celebrated today.