Finding something to be thankful for is difficult during wartime. But every autumn during World War I, millions of Canadians and Americans counted their blessings. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
Let’s take a look at the Thanksgiving holiday a century ago.
The first Thanksgiving celebrated in Canada was in 1578.
When it became a national holiday in 1879, it had no fixed date but was normally celebrated in October or November.
The traditional meal is a familiar one, including turkey, pumpkin pie, vegetables, cranberry sauce, stuffing, potatoes and yams. This menu was brought to Canada by Loyalists during the American Revolution.
Church services also were attended on the holiday.
During the first half of the 19th century, days of thanksgiving were proclaimed to celebrate specific events. In the later part of the century, the holiday often was held in November with each Thanksgiving having a different theme.
In the 1920s, Thanksgiving was linked with Armistice Day.
Things like parades and football were added to the tradition in the 20th century. Today, the holiday is celebrated on the second Monday of October.
Celebrated to commemorate the Pilgrims bringing in their first North American harvest, Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1863.
The holiday menu and traditions are shared with Canada, although football became part of the holiday as early as the 1890s.
World War I military personnel celebrated Thanksgiving where they were stationed. On the home front, the holiday became an occasion for patriotic sentiment.
Cooks had to take rationing into account when meal planning. Government campaigns urged households to save on staples like sugar, cereal and fruit.
“The family can substitute chicken, pale American cheese, and other becomingly simple dishes, and not only secure the same number of food calories as in the more expensive repast, but have just as much to eat and just as good a time eating it,” the San Jose Mercury News said in November 1917.
Still, despite wartime hardships, people gathered to give thanks for the same things people do today – friends, family, health, opportunity, jobs and possessions. In 1918, they added one more thing to the list — peace.
Updated: 19 October 2020