THANKSGIVING ON NORFOLK ISLAND
Thanksgiving is definitely an American tradition that goes back a long way. In the late 1800’s, Norfolk Island was to have a great deal of contact with American people and culture through the visits of American whalers, and their wives, who often stayed on the island for an extended time.
Isaac Robinson was a trader who had settled on the island in the early 1860’s, and married one Hannah Quintal. Although he was of British stock, he had a fair bit of contact with the American visitors, perhaps because his home was so close to the pier where they came ashore (the present Lions Club.) He eventually held the title of “American Consul”, although no one is sure that this was an official position. Nevertheless he formed strong relationships with the American visitors and settlers, and looked after their interests.
No doubt some of the whalers and their wives, feeling a little homesick, shared stories of their Thanksgiving celebrations back home, and Robinson decided to try the idea here, Back in the states, Thanksgiving coincided with Autumn harvests, but in Norfolk’s milder climate, it was still possible to hold a sort of Harvest Festival in November, which was the island’s late Spring.
The first record of Thanksgiving on Norfolk Island is in an entry in John Buffett’s diary in 1896. A service was held in All Saints. It is said that Robinson actually hoisted an American flag on the occasion, but was taken to task and forced to lower it.
It is probable that Thanksgiving services were also held in the other churches on the island from those early years, because both the Methodists and the Seventh Day Adventist churches were founded under American influences. On Norfolk Island, Thanksgiving Day is celebrated on the last Wednesday in November, while the United States observes it on the fourth Thursday.
Thanksgiving was to become firmly embedded in the island’s calendar and culture as an important tradition. It would be the one day of the year when most people wanted to go to church, even if they were not regular attenders for the rest of the year.
Our family always attends the Church of England service at All Saints. The church is transformed with cornstalks, laden with fully formed cobs, tied alongside each pew. That corn is a story in itself. There is a group of farmers and growers on this island for whom planting the Thanksgiving corn is a most important traditional task, almost a sacred duty. The seed needs to be sown at exactly the right time so that it is ready right on the day, and they rarely get it wrong. However, they have been heard to complain that when there are five Wednesdays in November instead of four, it can throw their timing out.
Along with the corn, there are stalks of sugar cane, magnificent urns of flowers, and the aisles and foyer are filled with piles of fruit, vegetables and baked goods. The setting up is carried out by a loyal band of helpers the day before. It is an activity that is almost as traditional as the Thanksgiving itself. During the afternoon, people arrive with contributions – bunches of bananas, boxes of fruit, sacks of potatoes, the best that Norfolk gardens and farms can produce.
The day itself is very much a family occasion, and many folk really make the effort to get there and enjoy the celebration of our island, its people and its produce. This year, we had a visit from Bishop Rob Forsyth, whose pastoral care we have been enjoying for 15 years. This is his last visit in his official capacity, and he reminds us that he has a great deal to be grateful for, because 7 years ago he had a heart attack while on the island, and believes the prompt and skilled treatment he received here saved his life.
As the Bishop and our Chaplain Rev.David Fell entered the body of the church, they were led by young Liam Christian-Bailey carrying the processional cross. The congregation struck up the Doxology, and everyone was in fine voice. Actually, the order of service and the hymn remain much the same from year to year, because people seem to like the occasion to remain familiar and traditional.
In his message, Bishop Rob stressed the importance of developing a habit of thankfulness in a world that is sometimes stressful and uncertain. He said that during these difficult times of change on Norfolk Island, we should still be conscious of our blessings and of the goodness of God. The Bishop noted that back in Sydney nowadays, a harvest festival type service would mainly involve donations of tins and packets of groceries. Here we are blessed to be close to the soil and appreciate where God’s provision comes from, and also value the labour of those who have produced it. It is most important, he said, to give thanks for each other.
A special treat during the service was when visiting soprano Lynne Anderson sang “How Great Thou Art” for us, and this was greeted with an enthusiastic applause. Peter Randall played the organ, as did his grandmother Edie Randall for previous generations. In fact, the sense of continuity and tradition was strong. One lady said she could not help thinking about sitting in the same pew with her parents and siblings more than 70 years ago!
At the end of the service, Tom Lloyd led us in the singing of the Pitcairn Anthem.
The Bishop and the Chaplain were led out, and the congregation remained seated while helpers carried the goods and produce to the tables outside, where over the next busy half hour most of it was sold to both visitors and locals. The fat fresh corncobs were especially popular, and the children had fun with the stalks of sugar cane.
The Uniting Church auctions their produce, and our Chaplain decided to take a leaf out of their book when someone donated a beautiful leg of locally-produced lamb! We must find more items for him to auction next year – he did a magnificent job!
What was left was taken to the hospital. The cornstalks were loaded onto the back of the truck, a treat for someone’s cattle, no doubt!
Back in the church, a couple of the menfolk vacuumed the church, and all was restored to normal.Although times have been hard for many on our island, we were overwhelmed by people’s generosity, with their gifts of both produce and cash.
We know the other churches had successful days too. Because the Adventist have their service in the afternoon, many folk took the opportunity of attending two services during the day. Others had celebratory lunches with friends and family, and made the most of the beautiful weather with picnics and barbecues.
Now that our Food Festival occurs in Thanksgiving week, we are doubly grateful for what our island provides, and for the people who share their skills and talents to bring it to our plates.