The true roots of Canadian Thanksgiving
Prior to 1957, the Canadian Thanksgiving tradition was to observe a time of thankfulness for the harvest in church on what was informally known as Harvest Sunday. In its traditional form, this was a church festival in which God was thanked for the provision of human needs through the harvest and ongoing cycles of the seasons. Thanksgiving became a public holiday by government proclamation in 1957, echoing the religious tradition: “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – to be observed on the second Monday in October.”
Thanksgiving observance in Canada owes its origins to the English church custom of offering thanks for the harvest, mixed in with ideas of American Thanksgiving, but its real roots lie much deeper. Theologically, Thanksgiving is drawn from the story of the ancient Hebrew people who observed a festival of thanks in the feast of booths, also known as Sukkot.
Part of the tradition in the modern Jewish household is to build a booth, a lean-to, in the days prior to Sukkot. This is a temporary structure in which a celebration of the harvest is held; meals are eaten and hospitality is offered. It is a reminder of the time that many Israelites farmed the land and gave thanks for the gathering in of the harvest, and a commemoration of the time that the Israelites lived in tents as they travelled across the wilderness from Egypt.
Legend has it that Abraham sat in his tent, with the flaps of the tent folded up on all four sides, so he could welcome weary travellers from every direction. This wonderful image of generosity is evoked by the holiday of Sukkot. In the Bible, God instructs the ancient Israelites to dwell in booths or tents for the seven days of the holiday of Sukkot, “because your ancestors dwelt in them during their sojourn in the desert when they departed from Egypt.”
What a wonderful image, to sit in a tent with all four sides folded up to be open to receive guests, wherever they come from. In our own Thanksgiving celebrations we may invite others in, but of course the walls and doors of Canadian homes may provide more than security and warmth; they may isolate us from neighbours. In a tent, around an open fire, with just the sky above and the earth below, one realizes that the great things in life, including security and warmth, come also from the bonds of friendship and fellowship that connect us together in shared experiences and shared dreams.
I think it is important to observe a time of Thanksgiving. In this, we are reminded we are not omnipotent, we offer our thanks for the harvest, and we affirm the beautiful and important things of life – good food, good friends, hospitality, and our hopes and dreams. In doing this, whatever our beliefs, we can affirm that life has a meaning and a beauty which sometimes escapes us. We can affirm that though life is passing and sometimes all too short, that although there are things which do not last, there are important things which last forever. These things we celebrate.
I probably won’t set up a tent this weekend, but I may light a fire outdoors when it gets dark, and look up at the stars and realize again how small I am in the universe around me, and give thanks for the harvest, for family, for the beauty of the changing seasons and for the things that are significant and eternal, as the stars shine even more beautifully than light through stained glass.