Frye and Thanksgiving

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Some pertinent (and impertinent) references to the theme and occasion of Thanksgiving. 

“The Concept of Sacrifice” (Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, CW 3).

There are many motives in primitive sacrifice: communion, propitiation, bribery, feeding of the god, establishment of a blood bond, reinforcing the efficacy of a curse, obtaining of an oracle, transferring of a disease to an animal, preserving a newly built house, and so on: but all of these fall under the two fundamental categories of communion and gift, or an application of either idea.  Probably sacrifice starts simply with man’s fondness for company and for a feast, the feast being the only occasion on which the idea of group cohesion becomes evident, through relaxation of activity.  Refreshments are the mainstay of social activity, as such, in any level of civilization, and there is no reason to suppose that primitives at the very beginning of conscious life had any loftier spiritual attitude than, say, we evidence toward Thanksgiving.  Even when the idea evolves of the critically important ritual feast with overtones of a larger significance, the meal is retained.  It does not occur to the primitive that the god does not necessarily eat or drink.  He leaves food for the god, who eats it up in the form of a jackal, vulture, or hyena.

Bible lecture no. 12, “The Question of Primogeniture” (Northop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, CW 13).

In the New Testament, if you look at the beginning at the Gospel of Luke, you find again the story that I referred to about the birth of John the Baptist, which picks up and repeats the theme of late birth.  The birth of Jesus is not said to be a late birth of the same kind, but again a triumphant hymn of thanksgiving is ascribed to the Virgin Mary at the time of the birth of Christ, the hymn which we know as the Magnificat [1:46–55].  The Magnificat has obviously been influenced by, if not modelled on, the Song of Hannah, and repeats this theme of social overturn.


On Thanksgiving Day 1934, Frye goes on a hike with all of the Kemp family, except Roy.  Helen is studying in London.  This according to a letter from S.H.F Kemp to Helen, 11 October 1934.

Norrie to Helen, 12 Dec. 1934.

My dearest, I’m frightfully sorry to have missed Christmas—I can’t get used to the idea of your being halfway around the world and the imperative necessity of sending Christmas gifts before Thanksgiving, and birthday greetings at Easter. I’m even more sorry to have sent my last letter, which I fondly hope has gone astray. It’s quite true, darling, that I’ve been damnably sick all fall, but that’s no reason for my inflicting myself on you to quite such an extent. Not in that way, at least.

Helen to Norrie, Sept. 1936.

One thing I beg of you—on all the bended knees you like, preferably yours—do get your hair cut by someone who knows how. And make them leave it long. One look at your passport photograph nearly gave me hydrophobia. Find out who is good and sit on him until he gets the idea. I can’t bear it.
Thanksgiving Day
The post office tells me I may catch the Normandie if I hurry with this. I have been in Wymilwood all morning, playing the piano and getting my clothes in order. Roy [Daniells] has a bad cold and I asked him to go for a walk this afternoon. Yesterday I went on a hike with Jean Cameron, Jean Elder, Dot Drever, Elizabeth Gillespie and Olive Brownlee. Cooked supper on the wet ground. Nothing much happened. I am enjoying a quiet weekend after a very hectic two or three weeks. I must get to work on German nouns and verbs later on to day, and there is no news. I hope your cold is better.

Norrie to Helen, 30 Nov. 1936.

Baine is very tall and bulky, and can’t go out without a huge overcoat and muffler—he’s spent the entire term trying to keep warm. He looks funny with me breezing along beside him with my yellow hair & pullover. The other day I went into Warren’s room around twelve & found him suffering from a terrific hangover—he’d been out to a Thanksgiving dinner the night before and was wondering about the people he dimly remembered having asked to tea—whom he asked, what day and what time of day they were coming, and why he’d ever asked them anyhow. I suggested that he go out and get himself a glass of tomato juice. He said he needed a whole can of tomato juice. I told him to get a whole can of tomato juice. He stared at me stupidly and said: “I haven’t got a can opener.”

Report of the “Adventure” Series.  Education vol of CW.

The compilers are concerned primarily to find a good level of popular literature for presenting a social mythology. The resemblance between these readers and the Reader’s Digest is shattering: I had innocently thought that people read the Reader’s Digest because they believed it to be an abridgement of contemporary magazine articles, not because they found it a comic-book monthly version of a school reader. They also resemble strongly (even to the choice of selections) the bedside book which Mr. Conrad Hilton has substituted for the Gideon Bible. In the grade 7 book, Benjamin Franklin is presented as a “lazy” man—that is, as a man whose main ambition it was to work for the technological comforts of the modern home. Edison is, more plausibly, presented in the same way, and God has similar ambitions for his Americans in the Thanksgiving section. The Western pioneers and Indian shooters, the great scientists, everything admirable in the past, is seen as leading up to a world of comfort and security, where the main outlet for adventure is in operating the technological machinery. Education of this type is really an education through narcissism: it is not an accident that a section entitled “Understanding Yourself Through Reading” is illustrated by a picture of a girl staring at herself in a mirror. The editors know very well the preoccupations of a teenager’s mind: the mores of the basketball team and the school paper, love of animals, resentment at parental authority combined with a conviction of its ultimate benevolence, and they have hunted high and low—chiefly low—for stories which hold up mirrors to those preoccupations.

“To Come To Light” (sermon in Northrop Frye on Religion, CW 4) was originally given as a Thanksgiving address in 1986 at the 150th anniversary of the founding of Victoria College.

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