When Americans move abroad, many have a hard time adjusting to celebrating Thanksgiving privately instead of being part of the massive holiday celebration most of us are used to. So it can be surprising for Americans to learn that the holiday is observed in Canada as well. But, it’s not all about the pilgrims. It’s more about the harvest.
The origins of Canada’s Thanksgiving holiday are a bit more varied than those of their American neighbors. Some historians assert that the holiday was established by Sir Martin Frobisher upon his arrival from England to Canada in 1578. However, others point to the celebratory meal hosted by Samuel de Champlain in Port-Royal in 1606, “which saw Europeans and Indigenous peoples breaking bread together. It was organized as part of the “Order of Good Cheer” dinner party series that was invented to make sure the colonists ate and drank enough to stave off scurvy and malnutrition.” (Source) The end of the 18th century saw Protestant pastors call for the celebration of a national day of Thanksgiving, and by the end of the 19th century, it was observed as a national non-religious event.
The traditions of Thanksgiving seemed to swap back and forth a few times in the early days of its observance. As it grew in popularity in the USA, Canadians adopted it to greater measures as well. Now officially observed the second Monday in October, the same day Americans observe Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Thanksgiving in Canada was first observed as an annual event in 1879, and became an official holiday upon the proclamation of Parliament in 1957. They “proclaimed the observance of the second Monday in October as ‘a day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed’.” (Source) It is a statutory holiday in all of Canada, except in the Atlantic provinces of Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where it is optional. The holiday is celebrated as Action de grâce in Quebec, and is less commonly celebrated there, given its Protestant origins.
The holiday is similar to the American Thanksgiving holiday in that it’s meant to celebrate the harvest, and offers a moment for people to gather to give thanks for the good things in their lives. The food served looks much the same, and often includes roast turkey, potatoes and gravy, yams, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and autumnal vegetables. Pumpkin pie is also often present.
Traditional dishes for Thanksgiving vary somewhat from province to province. While the traditional stars of the table remain consistent, different regions can be found to put their own spin on things. One might find Nanaimo bars on the dessert table in British Columbia, or poutine râpée, a potato dumpling stuffed with pork, in the traditional Acadian areas of the east coast. Butter tarts are a popular addition in Ontario, while in Alberta, home to many who trace their ancestry to Ukraine, one might find pierogies on the Thanksgiving table. And in Newfoundland, one might be treated to a traditional Jigg’s dinner, a boiled dinner of salted beef, potatoes, cabbage, and turnips.
Like their American neighbors, Canadians often watch football on Thanksgiving. Each year, the Thanksgiving Day Classic features a double-header from teams in the Canadian Football League. However, this doesn’t quite have the same craze or connection that American football has on its respective Thanksgiving celebration. While Americans may tune into the Macy’s Day Parade to see oversized floats and waving celebrities, few Canadians watch the previously recorded Oktoberfest Parade from the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest celebration which airs on their Thanksgiving.
When it comes to functionality, the holiday landing on a Monday causes many people to gather during the long weekend. Sunday, the day before the actual Thanksgiving, is the most popular option for the actual celebration. This gives people the actual holiday to travel home from visiting family – or to recover from a hangover.
Overall, Canadian Thanksgiving is not as big as its American counterpart. With the holiday falling on a Monday, and being further from Christmas, it has escaped the marketing as being the ‘beginning of the Christmas shopping season.’ It has no Black Friday counterpart, and running out after dinner to stand in line for a deal is nowhere on anyone’s radar. It also does not attempt to rival the USA’s biggest travel day of the year. Families who live nearby will often gather, but it generally isn’t a time when people travel across the country to see extended family. Unlike American Thanksgiving, people have to be back at work or school the next day. Happily, the fact that it lands earlier in the year means that people can enjoy the outdoors rather than being home-bound.
Around the second Monday of October why not give a nod to our Canadian friends and share one of the recipes from above with neighbors, friends at work, or family? It’s another beautiful day for us to be able to give thanks for all of the many blessings that we have in our lives.