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:
But other than the drifting date, early Toronto Thanksgivings were much as ours are today – meal-wise, at least:
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:
And the red-hot show everyone wanted to see on Thanksgiving, 1890, was Erma the Elf.
I don’t know about you, but I was awfully curious to know what Erma the Elf was about. Happily, I found a review:
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:
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:
Personally, I’d have been much more inclined to follow the World Series at Massey Hall:
But the biggest Thanksgiving draw by far, year after year, was the Sham Fight:
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 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.
But on the whole, as you’d expect, the papers were full of reminders to be thankful:
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.