The separation of church and plate: deconstructing Thanksgiving, Canada’s tastiest holiday

Graphic by Madeline McInnis

When we celebrate Thanksgiving, to whom are we giving thanks?

It’s a question that seems to posit its own questions. Surely, a great deal of that thanks can be given to those we are closest to: our friends and our families.

But there have been and always will be things that go far, far beyond our own control.

Are we giving thanks to the earth? What about the winds and the rain that fed it over the past year, growing its bountiful harvest of delicious squashes and potatoes on which we can feast?

If so, where does that end? Are we thanking the roots vegetables themselves? Are we celebrating the spirits that those represent in our consciousness? Are we ascribing that force to any sort of deity and, if so, is it really appropriate to subject the Canadian calendar to circle around that statutory celebration?

With so many questions, I found that I had to dig a little bit deeper.

To begin, the Canadian version of Thanksgiving as we know and understand it today began in 1957, with a proclamation from Governor General Vincent Massey.

Massey announced it as: “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”

This sort of statement appears to transform the holiday into a specifically religious celebration. The kind of religious celebration that appears to be at odds with the religious diversity of much of the population

Following statements like this, it’s difficult not to see an enormous Euro-Christian bias to the ethos and function of Canada.

“The [Canadian] government is predominately Christian,” Doug Thomas, president of the Society of Ontario Freethinkers said.

The Society of Ontario Freethinkers is a local atheistic group dedicated to creating a distinctly non-religious space for community and discussion.

Thomas sees that kind of Christianity to be a force at work within our communities that has been enormously prevalent in the cultural history of Canada. But he also recognizes the changes in Canadian society that shape opinions and expressions, and how those have changed since the 1950s.

“Having a public official like the Governor General making the statement that was made in 1957 … should be off the table,” Thomas said. “[And for the most part] it is; I can’t imagine [current Governor General] Julie Payette making that statement.”

“The sentiment generally – under the table – is that we’re moving away from religion.”

While there has been some systemic preference for Christian traditions in Canada, it hasn’t always been the only influential system of belief within this country, especially if we extend the history of this land further back than the 150 years since Confederation.

For more insight, I spoke with Michel Desjardins, a Wilfrid Laurier Religion & Culture professor who has spent much of his academic career looking at the link between religious traditions and food.

He saw the version of Canadian Thanksgiving established in 1950s to be more of its own reinterpretation of ideas humanity has been celebrating for much, much longer.

“I think [Thanksgiving is] fabulous [in its diversity],” said Desjardins. “If you look at a typical Hindu festival or a Christian or Jewish festival, it’s linked to a religion. And they can open up a bit and you can say, well, Christmas can be celebrated by everyone, but it’s really a Christian festival.”

“But Thanksgiving, if you look at the way it was described in 1957 … I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that it’s got reference to God in it because that’s how people talked about giving thanks [at that particular time].”

“If you’re looking at the specific time, it goes back to the 1950s. If you’re looking at people talking about a Thanksgiving Canadian festival, it goes back to the 19th century. And if you’re talking about individuals celebrating, giving thanks for food, it’s been here forever – just not in that specific time in October.”

Despite some historical overlap with Christianity, Desjardins sees the actual functionality of the holiday as far more diverse:

“It’s also a fabulous holiday because, if you look back on Canadian history, one of the things that happened early on is that the Europeans who came here to settle, they would have died had it not been for help from the indigenous people about what to eat and how to store foods.”

“And so when you look back at the records of that and people gathering to give thanks, Europeans who had arrived were deeply connected to the indigenous people. And they might have been Christians coming here from Europe giving thanks to God for what had happened but they were also deeply indebted to the indigenous communities.”

“So for people who want to use thanksgiving as the way of reinforcing the importance of indigenous people here, it’s a perfect opportunity because that’s how it all started. And so again its the flexibility of that kind of festival that’s fabulous.”

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t enormous social differences and issues based on the reconstructions of the holiday by different groups; but the same thing could be said of virtually everything and anything in this current age of de and reconstruction.

He continued by describing how that flexibility can be understood from a religious perspective, a cultural perspective or even just an individual, practical perspective, which especially leads to a focus on food – the turkey, the stuffing.

“I know a lot of people who celebrate [Thanksgiving] who aren’t religious at all and I know some people who celebrate it who are very, very religious and they can both celebrate the holiday and feel quite good about it,” Desjardins said.

Coming from an expectation that colonialism would have an enormous effect on how we understand Canadian Thanksgiving – due to the fact that the bounty we are celebrating comes from Indigenous land – I was surprised to see the roots of Thanksgiving described in a way that was only tethered to the positive parts of that history.

But perhaps, in a way, that idea of Thanksgiving is merely based on the cultural lens through which we view it. In many ways, Thanksgiving is merely a reaction to the foods that the earth produces.

“Thanksgiving has come in this part of the world during harvest times,” Desjardins said.

“And there are certain vegetables that are available then. I think it becomes very practical, right? You serve the bounty of the fall harvest and at that particular time you have pumpkins and squash and apples and so forth and those get used, and turkeys are around.”

None of this means that we are not impacted by religious or ethnic connotations that may not be fair to a large, differently minded portion of the Canadian population.

As Doug Thomas reflected on the fact that Canada’s anthem makes reference to God and is sung in schools every morning: “You’re forcing religion on the presumably 25% of the students that are atheist.”

But Thomas also sees a great deal of flexibility attached to the holiday. It’s not necessarily an occasion that he sees as imperative to avoid for atheists. Members of the Society of Freethinkers, his secular humanist group, still have much to be thankful for – it’s where those thanks are directed that’s important.

“We would give thanks to the people who provide food … for example, farmers. It’s a time to remind ourselves about being responsible, ecologically or environmentally … everybody has a personal thing that they want to be thankful for.”

But do the systemized origins ruin the adaptability of the holiday?

“[Holidays like Thanksgiving] come out of our religious roots,” Thomas said.

“You’re not going to change that. We haven’t changed the days of the week which are all based on Norse gods; many of the names of the months are based on Roman gods.”

In that same vein, it’s also worth considering how the roots of that Christian tradition were predated by other traditions, including those of Indigenous peoples. For as long as people have been around, they have seen a spiritual relationship between their own actions and their having enough food to survive.

“You had this very interesting phenomenon,” explained Desjardins, “where, when people arrived on this continent and they didn’t have enough food because the gardens failed and they couldn’t go to the store because there were no stores, they fasted instead of trying to scramble and look for berries or whatever.”

“They thought that by not eating they would show to god that they were caring and properly devoted to god, hoping that the fast would lead god the next year to make the food grow in the garden,” Desjardins said.

In the end, what does it all mean?

It means that Thanksgiving is fundamentally a Rorschach of a holiday, meaning that – in many ways – you can choose what it means to you.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t enormous social differences and issues based on the reconstructions of the holiday by different groups; but the same thing could be said of virtually everything and anything in this current age of de and reconstruction.

After all, you get the day off. Be thankful for what you have, and be thankful to whomever has provided it for you – whether that provider is yourself, your mom and dad, the earth itself or your god.

Enjoy the holiday and appreciate what you have.

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