Monday, October 13, 2008

A Day For Giving Thanks

My favourite time of the year, it is.

Usually still warm, but no longer stifling hot. The beautiful fall colours, which somehow seem to slow me down and pull me in. There's something about the season makes me feel thoughtful and meditative. And we do, indeed, have much to be thankful for.

But over the past few years, the question has nagged at me more and more. Why it is Thanksgiving here and Columbus Day there?
For reasons of history and politics, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving nearly two months earlier than our American friends, but that wasn't always the case, and Columbus Day also has its observational ambiguities.

From 1879 to 1898, the Canadian Thanksgiving was observed on Nov. 6, and in other years as late as Dec. 6. Occasionally, it even coincided with American Thanksgiving, celebrated on the last Thursday of November since the 1870s.

In 1899 Canadian Thanksgiving was fixed on a Thursday in October, then in 1907. it was moved to a Monday in October, the exact date being appointed annually by proclamation. From 1921 to 1930, Canadian Thanksgiving was observed on November 11, Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I. In 1931, it was moved again to the second Monday of October, and finally, on Jan. 31, 1957 an act of Parliament permanently fixed Canadian Thanksgiving to second Monday in October: "A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed ...

"Columbus Day Nominally celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492. Reportedly, there were observances commemorating Columbus' arrival as early as 1792, and Italian citizens of New York City had organized a celebration on October 12, 1866, but it was first called Columbus Day In 1869 San Francisco Italians celebrated on October 12. The holiday attained national status when President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed it to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage in 1892, made a commemorative proclamation.

I found it interesting that the first Thanksgiving Day in Canada after Confederation was observed on April 5, 1872 to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness.

What? Nothing about being thankful for the harvest?

Turns out that historically the theme of the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday had changed from year to year to reflect an important event to be thankful for. In the early years it was for an abundant harvest and occasionally for a special anniversary. After the first world war it was for Armistice Day. And now, of course, it's a day of general thanksgiving.

Interestingly, our American friends have not always been more consistent when it comes to the theme of Thanksgiving either. Although it's true that what is traditionally considered "the first Thanksgiving" was a shared autumn harvest feast between the Pilgrims and the natives, it was not repeated the following year. The colonists went on to observe a religious holiday descended from Puritan days of fasting, prayers and giving thanks to God.

Over a hundred years later all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration to commemorate their patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. But it took a determined magazine editor to initiate a fourty-year one-woman letter writing campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday to unify a country which she saw headed to Civil War. She was finally successful in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863.

Even then, the date was changed a couple of times, most recently by Franklin Roosevelt, who set it up one week to the next-to-last Thursday in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. But public uproar against this decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later. In 1941, Thanksgiving was finally sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday, as the fourth Thursday in November. Then in the 1920's, the fledgling Detroit Lions devised the concept of Thanksgiving Day game. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But don't worry, even though we have our differences, it's still turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce and veggies. With pumpkin pie for dessert, of course. Or more accurately, in our house this year, pumpkin crunch. Yummy!

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