Let’s give thought as well as thanks
For many of us, Thanksgiving arrives trailing the warm glow of marketing campaigns. From supermarket flyers to poultry marketing boards, the advertising advances all the elements of a cheery Norman Rockwell illustration: The proud hostess marching the succulent turkey to the table, the devout attention of adoring spouse and children with gathered faces shining in anticipation. The image is reassuring, an affirmation of orthodox suppositions — although 30 per cent of families in Canada now are not of the traditional nuclear unit variety — regarding the bounty and abundance we take as our entitlement in North America. Or, at least, in the affluent northern twothirds of North America, notwithstanding pockets of want ( indeed, of entire social strata, since three million Canadians — including 600,000 children — live in poverty and more than 830,000 visited food banks last year) that fall below the radar of self- congratulatory assumptions.
And yet, in many respects, the comforting image is congruent with at least some aspects of reality. There are many things for which to give thanks, even among those without material wealth. We may give thanks for having met a trusted soulmate with whom we can share intimacy and companionship, if not riches. We may give thanks for a wanted child, even one born into less than ideal circumstances. We may give thanks for a true friend, one to stand by us in our hour of need. We may give thanks for good health, or better health, or even for the medical system that has given us a gift of extra time we didn’t expect. We may give thanks for something as basic as peace and tranquillity in a world troubled by tumult and brutality. Or for something as simple yet grand as the public library, which welcomes readers of every kind and taste. Thanks can be as plain as gratitude for loving parents or for kids who turned out well — most of them do! — or for the blessing of a special talent, especially if it’s one that few recognized.
At its primal heart, Thanksgiving always carries a secret sigh of relief — we made it from the last harvest across the lean months of winter and spring to this new season of abundance! Now, with luck, pluck and fortitude and the harvest in, we can be assured of surviving one more winter.
Indeed, across the fields of British Columbia, the harvest is mostly in. Gardeners more concerned with the eye than the taste buds are situating their bulbs and scoping out the perfect spot for that transplanted hydrangea or rhododendron that has outgrown or looked misplaced in last summer’s digs.
The salmon runs are mostly complete — this year, another fabulous take of prized Fraser River sockeye — with only dribs and drabs to come, although, miraculously, there isn’t a month when there aren’t some anadromous species returning to the river that exemplifies British Columbia’s natural richness. The fall hunt is in full swing and fish and game clubs across the province are already planning their annual dinners of venison, fish, ducks, geese and upland birds. Some, in timeless B. C. tradition, will doubtless be serving a trout or salmon, Canada goose or a brace of blue grouse for dinner this Monday — if they’re not in the field with dog and gun, of course.
The bounty is there for the vegetarians among us, too. Farmers markets and roadside stalls are replete with shiny red apples, bins of butternut squash, new potatoes and luscious tomatoes. Ah, late season tomatoes, which vegetable aficionados pick through in search of the perfect vine- ripened specimen. Who can belittle the search for the ideal tomato? There’s no doubt that a juicy, room- temperature heirloom variety from a local farm will burst with flavour as nothing picked green, ripened in transit from Mexico and purchased from a supermarket cooler in the middle of February can.
Exactly when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in B. C. is hard to say. First Nations celebrated seasonal feasts and many have a particular emphasis on winter ceremonies following the final harvests of salmon. For the settlers who arrived in colonial times, the first Thanksgiving was likely brought by fur traders from Quebec. The Thanksgiving tradition there reaches back to Samuel de Champlain’s first expedition to winter over in the early years of the 17th century. It was predated by a pair of Thanksgiving ceremonies held by Martin Frobisher 30 years earlier. The first celebrated finding what he thought was a gold mine. The second expressed gratitude at surviving a dangerous expedition of discovery to Baffin Island, on which 40 of his crew were lost overboard or succumbed to scurvy and frostbite. One can discern a similar relief in Alexander Mackenzie’s journal, describing the fall return from his 102- day journey to the Pacific Ocean and back, wafted with a strong wind at his back to Fort Chipewyan where “we found Mr. ( Alexander) McLeod with five men building a new house” for the looming winter. For fur trader and diarist Daniel Harmon, in 1805, it was Thanksgiving for taking a wife, 14- year- old Lizette Duval, with whom he would have 14 children over a devoted 37- year marriage that would be ended only by his death in 1843. And around Thanksgiving in 1862, George Henry Richards, captain of a Royal Navy survey ship, noted that a vessel had just disembarked 60 or 70 marriageable young British women — “They were landed at Victoria!”
It is Frobisher’s first inclination — the inclination in which the trite version of Thanksgiving encourages us to indulge — that gives thanks for our material gains, our wealth and comfort during times of prosperity and largesse. But it’s his second, sober reflection on the blessings we still have, even in times of peril or need, those simple blessings bestowed upon Mackenzie, Harmon and the tiny new colony of Vancouver Island, that should really inspire us. When we sit down, whether rich or poor, secular or spiritual, surrounded by family, with friends or even alone, however humble those circumstances might be, give thought and thanks for what we have that is of true worth.