Banner photo is of a bell barn raising feast, July 17th, 1913, Victoria Park.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Well it’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Toronto – okay, all of Canada – and you can tell because it’s pretty tough to find a can of pumpkin puree anywhere.

If you live outside of Canada you might be surprised to hear that we celebrate our annual feast so early.  I know that when I was living in the States some years ago, this fact would raise a few eyebrows when it came up.  And so I learned to defend it by pointing out that our Thanksgiving coincides with the harvest – the very event the holiday is meant to celebrate.  But actually, it wasn’t always that way.

Thanksgiving was celebrated long before it became an official holiday in 1879 (supposedly beginning with Martin Frobisher giving thanks for surviving ice storms near Nunavut around 1578) and just like our neighbours to the South it was usually held in November.  It wasn’t until 1957 that Canadian Parliament finally decided to firm up the date by proclaiming it “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”  Which was probably quite welcome news given how willy-nilly they’d been in choosing its date in the past:

It sounds more like the turkeys were the ones suffering a famine. From the St. John Daily Sun, October 10, 1899.

But other than the drifting date, early Toronto Thanksgivings were much as ours are today – meal-wise, at least:

“-the fatality that broods over them turkey gobblers”? That’s cheery. And it’s not often someone tries to whet your appetite by mentioning celery. From the Toronto Daily Mail November 7th, 1891.
I’m not one for game, but that lettuce substitution sure seems like a let down. And I love the assumption that everyone knows how to make a pumpkin pie – except maybe the ‘housewiferly paper children.’  Whatever the heck they are.  From the Toronto Daily Mail November 7th, 1890.

But early Thanksgivings were often about more than just sitting down to dinner. As with Dominion Day, there were a number of ways a body could celebrate.  For instance, you could take in a show at the Opera House:

1885 Grand_Opera_House_on_Adelaide_Street City of Toronto Archives
The Opera House on Adelaide, west of Yonge, as seen in 1885.  From the City of Toronto Archives.

And the red-hot show everyone wanted to see on Thanksgiving, 1890, was Erma the Elf.

I don’t know why but it’s hard to imagine that was a stage name. From the Toronto World, November 5th, 1890.

I don’t know about you, but I was awfully curious to know what Erma the Elf was about.  Happily, I found a review:

Spoiler alert:  There were “thrilling and sensational situations.”  From the Toronto World, November 4th, 1890.

Okay so I still don’t know what it was about, but I do know this – I would love to be described as lively as a cricket and bright as a sunbeam.

Now if theatre wasn’t your thing there were a number of other exciting prospects:

From the Toronto World, October 12,1915.

I often come across snippets that make Toronto of old sound like an alien place, but none more so than the idea of “crossing the lake to visit the Niagara Camp.”

The Niagara Camp was a military training ground in Niagara-on-the-Lake during the late 19th century – something that was apparently fascinating to Torontonians.  Frankly, I don’t see the allure:

Hey, tents in a field – alright! The Niagara Camp in 1872.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Personally, I’d have been much more inclined to follow  the World Series at Massey Hall:

Pretty fancy digs to hang around and have someone read you the baseball scores off a ticker tape. (Ok so I have no idea what a paragon board was – but I imagine it was something of the sort.) Massey Hall, circa 1894.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

But the biggest Thanksgiving draw by far, year after year, was the Sham Fight:

Ah, the weather prophet foresees fine weather for the battle. From the Daily Mail and Empire, November 25, 1897.

The Sham Fight was exactly that – a phoney battle held between regiments for control of Toronto.  … Presumably any ‘control’ was also phoney.

As noted above, the regiments assembled at the Armouries on University Ave – a remarkable building that was torn down in 1963 and one of the city’s great architectural losses:

The Armouries at University and Armoury St., as seen in 1907.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The Sham Fight continued to be a popular event until 1915, when the very real WWI had soured the public’s appetite for battle.

Soldiers who’d survived that war held their own Thanksgiving event in 1919 – though it was hardly a celebration.  They’d survived the horrors of war only to find a lack of work at home.

War veterans protesting lack of work. - [1919?]
Veteran’s protesting – likely along College St in 1919.  From the City of Toronto Archives.
But on the whole, as you’d expect, the papers were full of reminders to be thankful:

Innocent pleasure only, please. … kind of drifts off oddly at the end, doesn’t it? From the Toronto World October 18, 1920.

Being thankful for what you have –  a timeless message and one we are still reminded of today … though many of us probably don’t worry much about being “vouchsafed an abundant harvest ” (though we probably should.)

… And now, because I have finally found a can of pumpkin puree, I am off to bake a pumpkin cheesecake for our Thanksgiving dessert.  But before I run off to make a mess in the kitchen, I’d like to wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving.  May you always have plenty to eat and drink, and lots of great company to share it with.

18 thoughts on “Thanksgiving

  1. I think that is an excellent description of you 🙂

    Great article. It makes me wonder how soon our public past times will seem eccentric if not freakish.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy Canadian Thanksgiving to you! (I had to throw the Canadian part in there, because I am one of those Americans who think your Thanksgiving is freakishly early, even though I do get the whole harvest thing is more sensible in October than late November.)
    I’m a vegetarian, and that lettuce “substitution” sounds appalling even to me! I usually just make some kind of lasagna for Thanksgiving, because everybody likes cheesy pasta, but even in ye olde times when pasta wasn’t really a thing, surely they could have come up with something better! Even just a baked potato or some roasted squash would be tastier than some shitty salad, and at least it’s hot!
    And, that army camp doesn’t look especially exciting, but I do kind of get the appeal. Wimbledon Common, which is just up the road from me, was an Army Camp during WWI, and I’ve often remarked that it would be cool if some of the camp was still standing. In addition to the tents and barracks and stuff, they had mock trenches and everything set up, which I really think would be pretty neat to see. (And sometimes soldiers committed suicide by drowning themselves in the ponds up there (which would be tricky unless they were deeper back then, because they’re pretty shallow) rather than go back to the real trenches, but that’s not cheerful enough for Thanksgiving, so I won’t dwell on it!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Thank you – and I totally understand. It’s pretty early. For being an autumnal event, it’s often too warm to want to celebrate with mulled cider.
      Yeah, that lettuce dish doesn’t even cut it as a salad. I would much rather your lasagna. At the first Thanksgiving dinner I went to on Sunday (I usually manage to score at least two) someone brought the most delicious vegetarian lasagna. I’d have been happy with that alone.
      Wimbeldon Common sounds way neater- I doubt Niagara Camp had trenches – but those poor soldiers!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy belated Thanksgiving to you! If you’ll forgive my boasting, the pumpkin cheesecake was delicious. The pumpkin makes it so moist that it’s light and creamy – like a cross between cheesecake and a mousse.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, our first Thanksgiving, around 1578, was held to celebrate Martin Frobisher’s survival after enduring ice and snow storms. Following that, just like the U.S., Canadian Thanksgiving became a celebration of the harvest.


    1. Thank you so much, Reggie. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanksgiving feels especially early this year what with the summer weather we’re still enjoying. Katherine


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s