There's more to Norfolk Island There's more to Norfolk Island

Who in the world celebrates what is normally a late-summer Harvest Home in the springtime, calls it Thanksgiving, and doesn't traditionally serve turkey at the feast?

Norfolk Islanders, that's who. They like to do things a little differently.

Thanksgiving Day arrived on Norfolk Island, becoming part of the cultural fabric of its people, by a somewhat circuitous route. Drill down into mankind's global psyche, especially where our lives and fortunes are deeply connected to the land, its rivers and the oceans, where our survival depends on toiling in the fields and on the sweat of our brow, and there you will find an innate gratitude. Gratitude for having made it through another year, gratitude for enough produce to feed our families over the harsh winter to come. It is a common thread across humanity, with these special days celebrated worldwide at different times and in different formats, but always with the same sentiment.

In the United Kingdom, from where the original Pitcairners of Norfolk Island derive some part of their ancestry, Harvest Home, or Ingathering of the crops is an ancient pagan festival celebrated in late summer, around the time of the autumn equinox on 22 or 23 September. Like many pagan rituals, the idea was embraced by the Christians. During the Victorian era the Harvest Home more formally segued into the Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving that we know today. Any Norfolk Islander visiting the old country at this time of year would readily recognise the churches decked out in their pagan regalia of baskets brimming with abundant produce, and corn sheaths and flower garlands draped along the ends of pews. After the service is over, the produce is distributed to the poor and needy.

The idea of a harvest festival was carried to North America by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. A brutal first winter left many of them dead and those who survived starving. It was understandable that the first corn harvest deserved a celebratory feast. Incidentally, wild turkey made an appearance, and it must have proved popular because turkey is a staple of the Thanksgiving dinner table to this day.

So it is that ideas and rituals, celebrations and gatherings merge and blend around the globe as people move and settle.

The idea of a thanksgiving celebration arrived on Norfolk Island towards the end of the 19th century, it is thought largely due to the efforts of Mr Isaac Dunsmure Robinson.

Isaac Robinson, the man, reaches out from history – intriguing, and definitely worthy of an article in his own right. The more you dig through the archives the more questions there are about him, most of which go unanswered. As a 'stranger' he was accepted into the island community, becoming highly respected and holding many positions, including councillor, justice of the peace, registrar, magistrate, shipping agent, farmer, writer, United States' one-and-only Norfolk Island consular agent, and even amateur botanist. He could be thought of, perhaps, as a small 'r' renaissance man, with evidence of a broader education than was available on-island at the time – and obviously with some good ideas.

The Pitcairners had their own whaling crews from as early as 1858, but the island was also the stopping off point for many American whalers who were often at sea for months or even years at a time. Robinson kept a diary in which he often made comments about the whaling industry. He was also secretary of the Horticultural Society. It isn't a giant leap to see the connection between the Society's spring show – held at that time in November – the end of the whaling season – also in November – and wanting to give thanks as the American whalers did – also in November. When your community is sincerely religious and deeply connected to nature, when your sons, fathers and uncles have survived another dangerous whaling season and when the fruits of your labours are in abundance – as they are at this time of year on Norfolk Island – it seems apposite.

An early mention of a Thanksgiving Day in Robinson's diary was on Wednesday, 25 November 1890. It reads, as follows:


Thanksgiving Day. Anglican service in the morning. Horman and Bice Holy Communion. Wesleyan Service in the afternoon Mr Salter. Attended both. Concert in honour of Mr Bice in the evening – not bad.

In the intervening years, Norfolk Islanders have developed into a resilient people. The island's geographical isolation has meant ships didn't, and don't, always arrive on schedule. The islanders have remained close to their land, close to each other, and reliant on rainfall, sunshine, the soil and the waters surrounding the island, although not so much for their survival these days, perhaps. Where populations in cities have been squeezed together, ironically, people have drifted apart and away from a sense of being part of nature's lifecycle. On the island, if your tank is empty or your vegetables have been hit by a plague of pests, you are acutely aware of it.

And so it is, from deep in their hearts, any islander you talk to expresses profound and grateful thanks for the gifts of nature, for the gift of community, and for being able to pull together and prosper. On the last Wednesday in November, Thanksgiving Day, the churches are packed to the rafters and voices are gladly raised in song and prayer. The churches are decorated with generous displays of fruit and vegetables, which are auctioned off afterwards with the proceeds going to charity. Sound familiar?

As one islander says: 'Thanksgiving means giving thanks for the harvest – the food we grow here on the island. It's about being able to be self-sufficient. We created it with our own sweat.'

The final word should go to the island's Mayor, Robin Adams. As she says, 'Thanksgiving is the day I give thanks for being able to wake up each morning and call this island my home. It really is the best small island in the world. It's pretty special.'

And that is undeniable.

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