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

Skip to:

Canada was the first, at least 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 Orde 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.

It’s not a nationwide statutory holiday

Thanksgiving day is a statutory holiday in most provinces in Canada including Manitoba except Prince Edward Island, 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.

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). A symbol of harvest, it was brought to Canada by European settlers. The cornucopia actually came from Greek mythology and is usually associated with Demeter, the goddess of harvest. Originally, it was 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 the 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 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 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 mostly 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; it was brought to Liberia by American immigrants, while one particular immigrant named Isaac Robinson introduced it to Norfolk Island as part of his attempt to Americanize it. 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?
 
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.

Back to top

Community Resources

Read 5 things to know about Canadian Thanksgiving to know more facts about the celebration.

Back to top

We'd love to hear from you!

Please login to tell us what you think.

Related Learning Activities

Voting in Municipal Elections in Manitoba

Winnipeg City Hall, Manitoba Canada

Voting in any election may seem a little confusing at times. Municipal elections are no exception. Attend this workshop to… Read more »

Voting in Provincial Elections in Manitoba

Golden Boy on top of Manitoba Legislature

Voting in Federal Elections in Canada

red maple leaf with white check mark in the middle

Voting in Canada. Does the thought of this seem overwhelming or complicated? Join this workshop to learn how uncomplicated it… Read more »

Rights and responsibilities of Canadian residents and citizens

Image of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Attend this workshop to learn everything you need to know as a resident or citizen of Canada!

Back to top

CC BY-NC-SAText of this page is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA, unless otherwise marked. Please attribute to English Online Inc. and link back to this page where possible. For images and videos, check the source for licensing information.