Here’s an odd triad: the American holiday Thanksgiving, a remote Australia-governed island, and marijuana. History wove these things together with whales, hospitality and pharmacology. Read on to learn how.
Thanksgiving Day: Commemorating a milestone in New England history … or?
One origin story for Thanksgiving Day dates back to 1621 in pre-USA New England. In that story, the first Thanksgiving – then regarded as a harvest feast, nothing inaugural – was celebrated with British settlers and the Native American Wampanoag people. From that point on, the feast became an annual autumn tradition celebrated locally in New England colonies and, when the USA was established, in states. In 1863, then-President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday to be held each November.
That’s one story.
Other origin stories exist too though – not for New England’s Thanksgiving Day, but for other countries’ Thanksgiving Day celebrations. For instance, Canada’s Thanksgiving Day dates back to 1578, when an expedition led by an English navigator held a ceremonial feast in gratitude for the crew’s safe arrival. And Germany’s (and other German-speaking countries) Erntedankfest is a religious holiday with roots in the pre-Christian harvest thanksgiving festivals in the Roman Empire, ancient Greece and Israel.
Although Erntedankfest didn’t become an official holiday until 1972, it was first mentioned (albeit not in German) by the Catholic Church in the third century. Continuing still, Liberia, Japan, Grenada, the Netherlands, Australia and inestimable native peoples on every inhabited continent all have their own origin stories for their respective Thanksgiving Day celebrations. So, the New England settlers’ feast is only one of many origin stories.
Only one country’s Thanksgiving Day origin story parallels that of pre-USA New England: Australia’s story. To be clear though, Thanksgiving Day isn’t a national holiday spanning the entire continent. Rather, it’s limited to an Australian external territory that’s floating far out in the Pacific Ocean, 620 miles from the mainland: Norfolk Island. In the 1700s and 1800s, the island was a penal colony for British convicts, and in 1913, it fell under Australia’s control. So, calling Thanksgiving Day an “Australian” holiday is like calling Puerto Rico’s Día de los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day) a “USA” holiday. It’s not incorrect, but it’s not accurate either. Nevertheless, this 36-square-mile patch of land with a population of roughly 1,800 got its Thanksgiving Day holiday from Americans and celebrates it in American fashion.
In a 2012 interview, Norfolk Island’s expert on Thanksgiving, Tom Lloyd, shared the island’s Thanksgiving Day origin story. In the mid-1890s, the American trader Isaac Robinson brought Thanksgiving to the island when he was stationed there to represent the company he worked for as an agent. When it was Thanksgiving Day his first year there, he proposed decorating the church for the holiday in order to be hospitable to the frequently visiting American whalers.
Whaling boats could be away for two to five years, so some American whalers brought their wives, who would stay on the island for extended periods. These women are said to have introduced the islanders to American baking techniques, which were then used for this lavish culinary holiday. According to the Norfolk Island Regional Council, U.S. whaling ships’ crews supplied recipes for pumpkin pie and cornbread, adding to the importing of a traditional USA Thanksgiving Day spread.
Of course, the islanders adapted the holiday to their culture, mixing in their own cuisine (notably, all kinds of banana dishes). Also, they celebrate it on a Wednesday instead of a Thursday, and it’s centered on religion instead of food (and high-risk shopping sprees). At its core though, the USA-inspired Thanksgiving Day has been carried on throughout Norfolk Island for nearly 140 years now.
Norfolk Island blazed a trail for mainland medical marijuana.
History was made in Australia in May 2015, when Norfolk Island’s government granted a license to AusCann Group Holdings to grow a high-grade strain of medical marijuana. As part of this agreement, the island’s self-governing administration granted a license to legally export the sativa and sativa-dominant strains of the drug bound for Canada. This was particularly advantageous because those strains are unsuitable for growing in Canada’s indoor facilities.
This was possible despite marijuana’s being illegal in Australia because Norfolk Island’s then-self-governing administration had the authority to grant a license to legally export the plant. The following month, however, the Australian government abolished the Norfolk Island Legislative Assembly, changing the island from self-governance to being governed by an administrator and an advisory council.
The unilateral suspension of the island’s self-governance had been in the works since two months before the AusCann deal. And the island’s government was aware of the pending abolition at least one week before the deal, but went ahead with it anyway. So, this outcome wasn’t a chain reaction, lest that be implied. In any event, at that point Norfolk Island was subject to Australian Commonwealth laws, and the island’s administrator revoked the medicinal marijuana growth/export license. He cited safety and security concerns – none of which were the islanders’ top priority in their anemic economy.
At the time of the AusCann deal, cannabis was expected to become a multimillion-dollar export industry within a year, and the islanders were counting on that boost to their economy. Although they were let down though, medical marijuana did go on to be legalized in February 2016. The Australian parliament amended the Commonwealth’s Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 to legalize the cultivation and manufacturing of cannabis for medicinal and research purposes. Under the new federal scheme, patients with valid prescriptions could possess and use legally manufactured cannabis.
So, despite its sore defeat, Norfolk Island actually stirred the pot just enough to get things cooking. An ABC News post from May 2015 stated plainly: “A decision to grant a licence [sic] to grow medical cannabis on Norfolk Island for export has sparked fresh calls to legalise [sic] the drug for Australian patients.” The subsequent events bear out that declaration.
Since November 2016, Australia has had a regulatory framework allowing legal access to medicinal cannabis products. The cannabis must be prescribed by healthcare practitioners, who typically do so through the Special Access Scheme – Category B (SAS-B) pathway. This requires first applying to the federal regulatory agency, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), for approval to prescribe a category of product to an individual patient suffering from a specific indication. The Department of Health and Aged Care (the TGA’s parent agency) states that medicinal cannabis can treat chronic pain (e.g., arthritis, neuropathic pain), anxiety, cancer-related symptoms, epilepsy, insomnia and multiple sclerosis (MS), among other things.
Prior to the AusCann deal, this was an unimaginable scenario.
Give thanks for medical marijuana this Norfolk Islander Thanksgiving Day!
Norfolk Island celebrates Thanksgiving Day on the final Wednesday of November, versus the USA tradition of the fourth Thursday. On that day, send some love and good vibes to the islanders if you’re pro-medical marijuana (or pro-cannabis unconditionally) to honor them for what they achieved for not only Australia but Oceania more broadly.
And feel free to throw in some of d’Norf’k laengwij (“the Norfolk language”) during your own Thanksgiving Day feast. Use a phrase like “Dem es sweet wettles!” (“That’s delicious food!”) while you’ve got the opportunity to bridge cultures across oceans.
Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.
Sources and Suggested Reading
ABC News. Facebook post. May 21, 2015. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.facebook.com/abcnews.au/posts/a-decision-to-grant-a-licence-to-grow-medical-cannabis-on-norfolk-island-for-exp/10154027217299988/.
“About Us.” MedReleaf Australia. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.medreleafaustralia.com.au/about-us/.
Ashraf, Allaa. “Australian Slang Words Students Must Know.” Casita. June 5, 2023. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.casita.com/blog/australian-slang-words-students-must-know.
Aurora Cannabis Inc., “Aurora and MedReleaf Australia Launch IndiMed Tempo 26, Further Strengthening Product Offerings for Medical Cannabis Patients.” PRNewswire. April 12, 2023. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/aurora-and-medreleaf-australia-launch-indimed-tempo-26-further-strengthening-product-offerings-for-medical-cannabis-patients-301795410.html.
AusCann. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://auscann.com.au/.
“Australian Medicinal Cannabis Industry Report.” Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Government of Australia. October 2021. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.mtpconnect.org.au/images/MTPC_Australian%20Medicinal%20Cannabis%20Industry.pdf.
“Australia’s Norfolk Island to export high-grade medicinal cannabis to Canada.” May 19, 2015. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/may/20/australias-norfolk-island-to-export-high-grade-medicinal-cannabis-to-canada.
Cresswell-Myatt, Nadine. “Why This Beautiful Australian Island Celebrates U.S. Thanksgiving, Plus Why You Should Visit.” Travel Awaits. November 20, 2020. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.travelawaits.com/2558711/the-australian-island-that-celebrates-thanksgiving/.
“Erntedank: Geschichte und Bedeutung des Erntedankfests.” Erzbistum Köln. September 25, 2023. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.erzbistum-koeln.de/presse_und_medien/magazin/Erntedank-Geschichte-und-Bedeutung-des-Erntedankfests/.
“Erntedank: Thanksgiving in Germany.” The German Way. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.german-way.com/history-and-culture/holidays-and-celebrations/thanksgiving-in-germany/.
Ewbank, Anne. “Why One Australian Island Celebrates Thanksgiving.” Atlas Obscura. November 21, 2018. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/norfolk-island-thanksgiving.
Godfrey, Alison. “The Unique Aussie Island That Celebrates Thanksgiving.” Family Travel. February 12, 2021. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.familytravel.com.au/norfolk-island-thanksgiving/.
“Guidance for the use of medicinal cannabis in Australia: Overview.” Therapeutic Goods Administration, Department of Health and Aged Care, Government of Australia. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.tga.gov.au/resources/resource/guidance/guidance-use-medicinal-cannabis-australia-overview.
Hearons, Kathleen. “Giving Thanks: A History of Native Americans and Cannabis.” Head Magazine. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://headmagazine.com/giving-thanks-a-history-of-native-americans-and-cannabis/.
Hearons, Kathleen. “Native American and Alcatraz: The Other Thanksgiving Tradition.” Head Magazine. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://headmagazine.com/native-americans-and-alcatraz-the-other-thanksgiving-tradition/.
“History of cannabis.” Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics, the University of Sydney. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.sydney.edu.au/lambert/medicinal-cannabis/history-of-cannabis.html.
“History of Cannabis Prohibition in Australia.” Medihuanna. October 5, 2021. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.medihuanna.com/articles/history-of-cannabis-prohibition-in-australia.
Johanson, Mark. “How Thanksgiving Became A Holiday On Remote Norfolk Island.” International Business Times. November 20, 2012. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.ibtimes.com/how-thanksgiving-became-holiday-remote-norfolk-island-893484.
Krisztian. “Brief History of Cannabis In Australia.” Greendorphin.com. Last updated September 8, 2021. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://greendorphin.com/brief-history-cannabis-australia/.
“Medicinal cannabis.” Healthdirect Australia, Department of Health and Aged Care, Government of Australia. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/medicinal-cannabis.
“Medicinal cannabis.” Office of Drug Control, Department of Health and Aged Care, Government of Australia. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.odc.gov.au/medicinal-cannabis.
“Medicinal cannabis legalised in Victoria, child epilepsy patients to be given access from 2017.” ABC News. Last updated April 12, 2016. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-12/victoria-becomes-first-state-to-legalise-medicinal-cannabis/7321152.
“Norfolk Island.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last updated October 29, 2023. Accessed November 19, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/Norfolk-Island.
“Norfolk Island.” The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency. Last updated November 14, 2023. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/norfolk-island/.
“Norfolk Island Language.” DiscoverNorfolkIsland.com. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.discovernorfolkisland.com/norfolk/language.html.
Ore, Adeshola. “‘This is a medicine’: the Australians prescribed cannabis but left fighting to keep their jobs.” The Guardian. August 25, 2023. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/aug/26/this-is-a-medicine-the-australians-prescribed-cannabis-but-left-fighting-to-keep-their-jobs.
O’Sullivan, Annie, and Yaa Bofah. “40 Best Thanksgiving Trivia Questions to Break Out on Turkey Day.” Good Housekeeping. Last updated November 15, 2023. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/holidays/thanksgiving-ideas/a35457/thanksgiving-trivia/.
Pruitt, Sarah. “8 Thanksgiving Celebrations Around the World.” History.com. Last updated September 29, 2023. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.history.com/news/8-thanksgiving-celebrations-around-the-world.
Sami, Mandie. “Medical cannabis: Norfolk Island decision sparks renewed calls to legalise drug for Australian patients.” ABC News. May 20, 2015. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-21/norfolk-island-medical-marijuana-calls-to-legalise/6486906.
“Thanksgiving 2023.” History.com. Last updated November 16, 2023. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving.
“Thanksgiving Day: Public Holiday.” Norfolk Island Regional Council. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.norfolkisland.com.au/visitor-info/events-calendar/event/99-thanksgiving-day-public-holiday.
“The History of Cannabis in Australia.” AltMed. September 21, 2023. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://altmed.com.au/legal/the-history-of-cannabis-in-australia/.
“The Oceania Cannabis Report™.” Prohibition Partners. November 2018. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://prohibitionpartners.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/The-Oceania-Cannabis-Report%E2%84%A2.pdf.
“There’s More to Norfolk Island.” Norfolk Island Regional Council. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.norfolkisland.com.au/.
Whitelaw, Anna, and Caroline Zielinski. “Campaign to legalise medicinal marijuana gains momentum.” The Age. Last updated August 24, 2014. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/campaign-to-legalise-medicinal-marijuana-gains-momentum-20140824-107rxp.html.
Wichert, Simone. “Erntedankfest – Kirchliches Fest am ersten Sonntag im Oktober.” BR Kinder. September 29, 2023. Accessed November 18, 2023. https://www.br.de/kinder/erntedankfest-erntedank-am-ersten-sonntag-im-oktober-brauchtum-fest-kinder-lexikon-100.html#:~:text=In%20der%20katholischen%20Kirche%20wurde,ersten%20Oktobersonntag%20gefeiert%20werden%20soll.