We don’t have to explain the importance of Thanksgiving to our friends over the pond. But here in the UK, it’s still a bit of a mystery. What exactly is it?
The First Thanksgivings
It all started with those first European settlers in America. In Canada it’s traced back to 1578. Explorer Martin Frobisher had been trying to make his way by sea from Britain to the Pacific around by a northwest passage. He held his thanksgiving celebration of surviving the journey. He held the ceremony on Nunavut Island, with a service to give thanks to God.
And then again French Canadians trace it the early 1600s and the first French settlers celebrating their successful harvests.
New elements to the celebrations were added as new immigrants from Europe arrived, but the turkey thing didn’t really get there until American Revolution when those fleeing the revolution settled in Canada.
In the USA, the first thanksgiving is usually attributed to the Pilgrim Fathers in 1621. Puritans emigrated from England in the 1620s. They took with them traditions of fasting and thanksgiving with them. Their Thanksgiving was for their harvest. But we have to remember that the USA was being settled by people from all over Europe. They all brought their own individual traditions with them, and put them in the melting pot. There are claims for instance that Spanish explorers in Texas celebrated thanksgiving feasts much earlier.
Whatever the origins, it was much much later that an actual date was settled on. And wasn’t until 1941 that the US settled on the third Thursday in November. Canada celebrates it on the second Monday of October.
So that’s the background. I guess we’ve all watched enough movies to get the idea of the celebration. Traditionally there’s turkey on the menu, as far as the food is concerned. And Pumpkin Pie. And it’s all about friends and family. It’s often a much bigger social occasion than Christmas. There’s obviously a religious part to it, with Thanksgiving to God, but it’s also a cultural secular celebration.
The days after Thanksgiving are given as holiday for many. Except retail staff, who probably have their busiest day of the year. Retailers take the opportunity to offer huge incentives for people to start their Christmas shopping. The Friday after Thanksgiving has become known as Black Friday. And Cyber Monday: when everyone returns to work and presumably uses their works’ internet to do their online shopping.
But it’s Thanksgiving itself that has the real cultural significance for Americans. We wish you all a very happy day!