Did you know that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Canada? (and other Thanksgiving facts)

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Canada was the first country in North America to celebrate Thanksgiving. In fact, the Indigenous Peoples of Canada have been having annual fall harvest thanksgiving celebrations for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of European settlers.

In 1578, English explorer Sir Martin Frobisher and his crew celebrated their safe passage and arrival in what is now known as Nunavut. This thanksgiving feast was held 43 years ahead of the Pilgrims’ celebration on Plymouth Rock (America’s first Thanksgiving).

Here are other Thanksgiving facts you might find interesting:

Samuel de Champlain initiated a series of rotating Thanksgiving feasts in 1606

Around 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s settlement at St. Croix suffered from a scurvy epidemic which claimed the lives of nearly half his men. They moved to Port Royal but the disease followed them the following year. However, this time, the result was less disastrous because of the mild winter. In thanksgiving, Champlain began a series of festivities called L’Ordre de Bon Temps (“Order of Good Cheer”) which was held every few weeks. This was also an opportunity to offer more food to prevent scurvy as they figured that better nutrition would prevent the disease. Local Mi’kmaq families joined in these gatherings which consisted of big feasts and merry-making.

Thanksgiving symbols: Turkey and cornucopia

Have you ever wondered what that cone-like object is in Thanksgiving displays? It’s called cornucopia or “horn of plenty” (see photo above). It is a symbol of harvest and was brought to Canada by European settlers. The cornucopia actually came from Greek mythology and is associated with Demeter, the goddess of harvest. It was originally depicted as a goat’s horn.

Of course, the most well-known symbol of the occasion is the turkey. We even call Thanksgiving “Turkey Day”. While early celebrations featured feasts with game and wild fowl (and not necessarily turkey), it became the poultry of choice during Thanksgiving mainly because it was a popular bird in North America in the 1900s. This was around this time the event became a national holiday. Moreover, the turkey is the most practical choice for the occasion – it is large enough to feed a large family or a large group of guests. And unlike chickens or cows, the bird did not serve any other purpose (like produce eggs or milk). Turkey was also considered more special than pork, making it ideal for a significant feast.

Did you know that Thanksgiving is not a nationwide statutory holiday?

Thanksgiving day is a statutory holiday in most provinces in Canada including Manitoba except Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. It’s an optional holiday in the Atlantic provinces.

The celebration also varies. For example, Thanksgiving is called Action de grâce in Quebec and is celebrated with less fanfare compared to celebrations elsewhere. Meanwhile, instead of a turkey feast, Newfoundlanders serve Jiggs’ dinner which is a traditional dish consisting of salt meat, cabbage and other vegetables. For dessert, people of BC prefer Nanaimo bars while Ontarians serve butter tarts instead of the usual pumpkin pie.

Did you know that 11 other places in the world celebrate Thanksgiving?

I’ve always thought that Thanksgiving was a North American holiday. But aside from Canada and the U.S., 10 other places celebrate the holiday or a variation of it. These countries are Liberia, Brazil (Dia de Ação de Graças), Germany (Erntedankfest), the Australian territory of Norfolk Island, Grenada, China (Moon Festival), Leiden in the Netherlands, Japan (Kinrō Kansha no Hi), South India (Pongal), Ghana (Homowo), and Malaysia (Kaamatan).

These celebrations evolved from harvest festivals and are held around the same time every year (October-November), except for Pongal which is held in January, and Homowo and Kaamatan in May. In the case of Liberia and Norfolk Island, the holiday is not about thanksgiving for the harvest. Thanksgiving was brought to Liberia by American immigrants. One particular immigrant, Isaac Robinson, introduced it to Norfolk Island as part of his attempt to Americanize the territory. Meanwhile, Grenadians celebrate the holiday to mark the anniversary of the American-led invasion of the island in 1983 and the Dutch celebrate it in honour of the American Pilgrims who took shelter in Leiden enroute to the New World.

How will you celebrate Thanksgiving this year?
Article updated September 28, 2023.
Sources: The first Thanksgiving in North America, Laura Neilson Bonikowsky, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Talking turkey: Five facts about Canadian Thanskgiving, Daniel Martins, The Weather Network; Thanksgiving in Canada, Mills, David et al., The Canadian Encyclopedia; The history of Thanksgiving in Canada, Alison Nagy, Canada’s History; 5 countries besides America where people celebrate Thanksgiving, Zack Beauchamp, Vox; How 10 countries besides the US celebrate Thanksgiving, Kae Lani, USA Today; Why We Eat What We Eat On Thanksgiving, Ethan Rex, Mental Floss; and The origin of the cornucopia in Greek mythology, N.S Gill, Thought Co. Accessed September 28, 2020.

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