A Tale of Two Thanksgivings

The US observance of Thanksgiving Day is just past, and its frequent juxtaposition with the beginning of Advent (and to the frenzy of consumerism known as Black Friday) means that when it is done, it is done – out of mind. But as someone who has observed Canadian Thanksgiving exclusively over the past few years, I couldn’t help but ask a couple questions this year, especially while on sabbatical in the US during both of these Thanksgiving dates. The ‘two Thanksgivings’ in the title then refer to these two national observances, but also to another question – what does the domestic (or community) Thanksgiving have to do with the church in these ‘non-liturgical’ national holidays?.

Harvest festivals are nothing new-quite the opposite, they are ancient, predating history (written records) in some places. The church’s involvement in them is also longstanding, beginning by co-opting and adapting local religious/cultural rituals and present in liturgical books dating back to the early church. The ancient rogation days, ember days as Mediterranean harvest events, and in the Northern Hemisphere, the late summer/autumn emphasis on the key grain harvest all became part of the liturgical calendar of Christianity while continuing their more ‘earthy’ aspects through enduring popular religiosity.

But this year, perhaps because of the unwelcome changes to the way Thanksgiving in the US is normally celebrated thanks to the pandemic, together with an explosion of interest in indigenous questions, there seems to finally be a much more public conversation about the “myth” (here used with the cultural interpretation of something that is not true) of origins for American Thanksgiving. Perhaps in our smaller gatherings this year we are more introspective, or perhaps it is just time to start challenging a murky and whitewashed story of Pilgrims and Indians. It has emerged in more visibility (via social media and news agencies) for the observance of “A National Day of Mourning” (a move by Native Americans begun in 1970 to protest the untruthfulness of what happened in the early years of the 1620s in what is now New England), as part of a larger movement toward truth-telling regarding people of colour, and even as part of the local and slow food movement, especially from indigenous chefs calling for people to buy and eat locally-sourced foods.

As many Americans already know, Thanksgiving Day was not established in 1621 as a national and enduring day (that would be difficult for many reasons!) But in my unofficial survey consisting of sporadic conversations, I was interested to learn that many people guessed at the origins much earlier than President Lincoln – who turned the varied local and optional observances into an annual national day in November in the midst of the civil war (1863). Fewer Americans seem to remember that US leaders such as Thomas Jefferson actively argued against a national day of Thanksgiving because God was often involved, perceived as inappropriate in a country with a separation of church and state. It is true, however, that Lincoln’s choice of date might be rooted in George Washington’s call for a day of thanksgiving for peace and freedom to be observed in the year 1789. I was also surprised that many people did not know when Canadian Thanksgiving was (the second Monday in October), or that its origins were not the same as the American popular observation (meaning the story of Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribal members sharing a harmonious meal among equals). So, what is the difference, and how does it affect the second tale of two Thanksgivings, the involvement of the church?

Officially, the date of a distinct Canadian Thanksgiving was set on January 31, 1957, by the Governor General of Canada, Vincent Massey, who issued a proclamation stating: “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – is to be observed on the second Monday in October.” This was, of course, not the beginning of harvest festivals among the indigenous peoples of Canada, or the later French and British settlements. But the history is mixed – it rests both on harvest festivals (and remains early enough in the year to be an actual harvest festival) as well as on European explorers. French-speaking Canadians call the day Jour de l’Action de grâce, and, if observant Christians, find its roots in the Roman Catholic harvest festivals. If secular, they look to the 1606 establishment of days of giving thanks set by Samuel de Champlain. The English (and the Church of England) which dominated so many of the civic observances, found the roots in the harvest festivals of the English church, and secularly in the 1578 celebration of thanks at the safe landing of Europeans in what is now the territory of Nunavut. There was also a vocal campaign in 1852 to ‘borrow’ the idea of an annual Day of Thanksgiving from the US, which bore fruit in 1879 when a national observance was merged with several other days of thanksgiving for the royalty and military victories.

The historical evolution in both the US and in Canada is quite mixed in other words, especially with regard to the present day’s liturgical observances. There is the oddity of setting aside a day of thanksgiving when that is the basis of every eucharistic liturgy, not to mention these are days of relevance only within one national group, not universally. English settlers to Canada came with the 1662 Prayer Book in hand, which has several prayers of thanksgiving for the harvest, but no official ‘liturgy’ per se. They also came with the popular observance of Lammas, the August 1 wheat harvest celebration whose Anglo-Saxon name is probably from the equivalent of “loaf-mass”, when the first breads baked from the wheat harvest (or other grain) were offered to the church for either consecration at mass or to be blessed and then brought home. Settlers of all types undoubtedly brought harvest celebrations which met the indigenous observances already present, but the official liturgy of Thanksgiving Day evolved gradually.

The first American Episcopal Prayer Book (in 1789) aligns with the presidential call for a day of prayer (not a coincidence as Washington was Anglican), replacing the English national day observances with those more appropriate for the new country. There, the instructions in the liturgical calendar read: “In addition to the above, the first Thursday in November (or, if any other day be appointed by the civil authority, then such day) shall be observed as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God, for the Fruits of the Earth, and all other Blessings of his merciful Providence.” Here the ecclesial celebration was re-focused on the harvest and other divine blessings. There were existing days of harvest thanksgivings in the Roman Catholic calendar, but not until the reforms of Vatican II would whole liturgies be shaped for both the American and Canadian days. The readings in both traditions are primarily about general thanksgiving to God, but the Anglican traditions still reflects the harvest roots in a more direct way.

The opening prayer/collect in both traditions often carries the synthesis of thematic focus:
US RC for Thanksgiving Day:
Father all-powerful,
Your gifts of love are countless
And your goodness infinite;
As we come before you on Thanksgiving Day
With gratitude for your kindness,
Open our hearts to have concern
For every man, woman, and child,
So that we may share your gifts in loving service.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of he Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever.

US Episcopal for Thanksgiving Day (1979):
Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the
fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those
who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of
your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and
the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Canadian Anglican (BAS 1985) for rogation or thanksgiving for harvest:
Creator of the fruitful earth, you made us stewards of all things. Give us grateful hearts for all your goodness, and steadfast wills to use your bounty well, that the whole human family, today and in generations to come, may with us give thanks for the riches of your creation. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord.

1962 BCP for Dominion day or other occasions of national thanksgiving
O ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who crownest the year with thy goodness, and hast given unto us the fruits of the earth in their season: Give us grateful hearts, that we may unfeignedly thank thee for all thy loving-kindness, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

But the focus of the opening prayer can be shaped by the variable parts of the liturgy. Perhaps more telling this year was to have a wander through the endless online liturgies available on social media. In a number of these, the musical choices were national hymns and the preaching about patriotism (particularly in the US), so that the general thanksgiving to God, or the focused thanksgiving for the harvest(s) became days of national celebration and triumph. As one moves into churches not bound by the lectionary or by the use of set prayers, the harvest identification drops and the nationalistic (or rather politicizing) celebration rises – a tale of two thanksgivings becomes more like a tale of about ten thanksgivings!

I suspect the poor liturgical timing of US Thanksgiving is not something that will likely change, but perhaps a more conscious return to harvest thanksgiving might be a first step as part of the need to raise consciousness about our dependency on God, our need to respect creation, our need to be better stewards of creation, and to recognize the diminishing attention to those who grow our food.

From long before the ‘theme’ wars of national thanksgiving days, I’ll let the 16th century poet John Donne put the issue into a more eschatological framework (this from his poems and sermons gathered under Occasional Mercies)
“God made Sun and Moon to distinguish seasons, and day, and night,
and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons:
But God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies;
In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute,
and in heaven it is always Autumn, his mercies are ever in their maturity.”

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