Culture At Large

Thanksgiving and grace in the Great White North

Adele Gallogly

The story behind the first Thanksgiving celebration in Canada is a simple one.

In 1578, English explorer Martin Frobisher set out to find a northern passage to the Pacific Ocean ... and failed. He then threw a formal celebration - a feast - in what is now Newfoundland to give thanks for his and his crew’s safe arrival in the Americas after a precarious sea journey.

In later years, French settlers held similar large feasts of thanks upon their arrival in the New World and were allegedly generous with their food, sharing it with the First Nations people around them.

Thanksgiving was sporadically celebrated in October and November until 1957, when the Canadian Parliament proclaimed the second Monday in October “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.” In Canadian French, the holiday is called “Jour de l'Action de grace.”

So goes the genesis of the holiday. And it all began with a search, a failure and a feast. As I said, a simple story, really.

Relatable too, right? I know the first thing I feel like doing after a failed endeavor is throwing a huge feast of thanks. And comforting, as it proves that North Americans always live in perfect, charitable harmony with indigenous peoples on Canadian soil.


Wrong, of course. So very wrong. No part of me - no idyllic patriotism - will let me pretend otherwise.

So instead let me go back to that French term for the holiday for just a moment - to that English-distinguishable word at its end: grace. This is where I see relatability and comfort in the cobbled-together events that compose Thanksgiving’s beginning in my country.

It is grace, I think, that led Frobisher to meet his failure with a grateful feast for safe homecoming. It is grace, I know, that enables any person, in any country, to share his or her bounty with another.

And it is grace we need when these and other such acts of generosity exceed our grasp because of pride or ingratitude or begrudging. When we’re in the wrong place, on our own unwanted and wayward shores, and called to give thanks .. anyway.

This philosophy of relentless thankfulness is passionately advocated by Ann Voskamp, best-selling author of "One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are."Described by Voskamp as a “celebration of grace and a recognition of the power of gratitude,” the book is a journey through Ann’s personal story propelled by the collective Christian struggle to live with joy and act with grace in a suffering world. As Voskamp writes: “I only deepen the wound of a hurting world when I neglect to give thanks.”

Frobisher and Voskamp have perhaps very little in common besides their Canadian heritage. What can be taken to the feast table from both of them, though, is an example of gratitude handed over out of more than mere obligation or affection. Costly gratitude that surprises and unravels us.

Their stories also reveal the rightness of the holiday’s name. It is not, after all, Thanks­feeling or Thanksdoing or even Thanksbeing. It is Thanksgiving. To me that has a sound similar to many scriptural phrases of what we are to offer our Lord, including Hebrews' “sacrifice of praise.”

This weekend, Canada is again gifted with an annual Sabbath of sorts, a time of thanksgiving, in the rush and malaise of post-summer, pre-winter days. A feast day. A time to ponder the abundances and burdens of this earth and to give thanks, ruthless thanks, that each of them is somehow run through with the fullness of God’s grace.

(Photo courtesy of By Lars Plougmann/Wikimedia Commons.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, History, World, North America