The book of Leviticus describes three major festivals for which every adult male was to be present in Jerusalem. The first was the Passover, observed the fourteenth day of the first month, roughly equivalent to April in the Julian calendar. This was a celebration of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Grain was seeded in fall and this also marked the time of the beginning of grain harvest. The second day of the Passover festival, they were to offer the first sheaf of barley from the harvest.
Seven weeks later, or fifty days, came Pentecost, in celebration of the completion of the grain harvest. It is not specifically mentioned in Leviticus, but the timing coincides with the day when Moses came down from Mount Horeb with the tablets of stone upon which God had written the Ten commandments.
The feast of tabernacles came on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. By this time the grapes and olives had been gathered in and the wine and oil were in storage. This was also a celebration of how God had cared for them during the forty years in the wilderness.
All three of these festivals combined giving of thanks for the fruits of the earth with giving of thanks for God’s providential care.
The English Harvest Home festival began when the last cart of harvested grain was brought in from the field. It became the custom in the Church of England to bring sheaves of grain and garden produce to church the Sunday after the end of harvest and to have prayers of thanksgiving for the harvest. France and most other European countries had similar customs.
The first recorded thanksgiving service in Canada was in 1578 when explorer Martin Frobisher and his crew held a service on the shore of what is now Newfoundland to give thanks for having survived the Atlantic crossing. There was a Church of England minister on the ship and communion was observed as part of this service.
In 1606 Samuel de Champlain and the settlers at Port Royal in what is now Nova Scotia organized l’Ordre du Bon Temps (Order of Good Cheer) to give thanks for their first harvest. They continued with periodic celebrations through the winter months to keep their spirits up. These celebrations included prayers of thanksgiving offered by ministers of the French Reformed Church who were with Champlain and the settlers.
I have come across at least four earlier claimants for the first Thanksgiving in what is now the USA, but the one held at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 has taken on a mythic status. Since the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving became their one big annual celebration. Thanksgiving still seems to be a more important holiday than Christmas in the USA.
Here in Canada, we have been influenced by the English and French traditions plus the US tradition. Thanksgiving is observed the second Monday in October. Our congregation will gather Monday evening for a traditional Thanksgiving feast. Neighbours and friends are invited to join us.