It comes as no surprise that Thanksgiving should have taken root in North America. With similar festivals having deep roots across Europe, it was only natural for communities with their survival at stake to give thanks for what bounties they received. Today, it is one of the inheritances from old Europe which still binds together Canada and the United States. The date has varied between time and places, but the tradition has stood firm. Although less prominent in Quebec, similar days “l’action de grâce” were proclaimed on such occasions as peaces reached between France and England, and the anniversary of the 1837 revolts.
It is often held that the first English meal of thanksgiving was held by the explorer and privateer Martin Frobisher on modern Baffin Island, and the height of this meal was the offering of communion. This was the first English Christian liturgy in the Americas. Samuel de Champlain held similar meals of thanks in the French colonies he established. He also encouraged the establishment of the Order of Good Cheer, which held meals of thanksgiving and in fact survives until this day in Nova Scotia.
In honour of Thanksgiving, Northern Dawn wishes to republish some of the proclamations of this day on our continent. In particular, one should take note of a general gratitude in all these statements of Thanksgiving toward Divine Providence. This reflects a culture still infused by the Christian spirit.
First, we present the declaration of a day of thanksgiving by the Province of Canada in 1859:
VICTORIA, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, QUEEN, Defender of the Faith, &c., &c., &c.
To all to whom these presents come – GREETING:
WHEREAS it hath pleased Almighty God in His Great Goodness to vouchsafe unto Our Province of Canada, the blessings of an abundant Harvest; We therefore, adoring the Divine Goodness and duly considering that the blessings of Peace and Plenty now enjoyed by Our people in the said province, do call for public and solemn acknowledgements, have thought fit by and with the advice of our Executive Council of Our Province of Canada, to issue this Proclamation hereby appointing a General Holiday and Day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for these His Mercies to be observed throughout Our said Province of Canada, on THURSDAY, the THIRD day of NOVEMBER next, and We do earnestly exhort all Our loving subjects therein that they do observe the said Public Day of Thanksgiving.
Second, we have George Washington’s first declaration of a day thanksgiving in 1789. Even though the Thirteen Colonies had broken away from the political and spiritual unity of the English monarchy, they bore with them a great patrimony which could not be so easily discarded. Washington is quoted here in part:
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
We also see the setting aside of a day of thanksgiving by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. Though seeking to break away from the United States, the Confederacy also saw itself as tied to Christian European roots. The fact that the political aims of the Confederacy were consistent with continuing the tradition of Thanksgiving in the inherited way are testimony to this aspect of the Southern identity. It shows that the Thanksgiving tradition was not in any way seen as tied to the American republic as a political regime. Lincoln would likewise set aside a day of thanksgiving in 1863.
WHEREAS, it hath pleased Almighty God, the Sovereign Disposer of events, to protect and defend us hitherto in our conflicts with our enemies as to be unto them a shield.
And whereas, with grateful thanks we recognize His hand and acknowledge that not unto us, but unto Him, belongeth the victory, and in humble dependence upon His almighty strength, and trusting in the justness of our purpose, we appeal to Him that He may set at naught the efforts of our enemies, and humble them to confusion and shame.
Now therefore, I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, in view of impending conflict, do hereby set apart Friday, the 15th day of November, as a day of national humiliation and prayer, and do hereby invite the reverend clergy and the people of these Confederate States to repair on that day to their homes and usual places of public worship, and to implore blessing of Almighty God upon our people, that he may give us victory over our enemies, preserve our homes and altars from pollution, and secure to us the restoration of peace and prosperity.
Given under hand and seal of the Confederate States at Richmond, this the 31st day of October, year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty one.
Thanksgiving has come in and out of fashion, has been given at different times, and has been celebrated in different ways. But it has been a continuous tradition on this continent from the times of the first European settlers onward. Its celebration is a bond with the past and a gift to the future.
Therefore, let us give thanks!