Friday, November 24, 2006


Canada does Christmas better than the U.S. (I'll talk more about this around Christmas time), but the U.S. beats Canada at Thanksgiving.

In Canada, Thanksgiving is on the U.S.'s Columbus Day (the second Monday of October). It lasts one day, and the "big day" is on the last day of the long weekend. Canada being colder, the harvest is earlier, which is why Canadian Thanksgiving is in October instead of November (even though there is virtually no difference between the growing season in Southern Ontario and New York or Michigan; there is quite a difference between Quebec or Atlantic Canada and Virginia or the Carolinas).

I never thought of Thanksgiving as a big holiday. Now, I was an immigrant to Canada, so I'm not the best person to talk to about the emotional connection to Canadian Thanksgiving. We had a turkey dinner, but to my family it was just slightly more important than Labour Day, mainly because we had a turkey dinner for it. For many Canadians, Thanksgiving is the traditional weekend when you drive out of the city to your cottage (or the cottage of a friend), and close it up for the winter. Perhaps other Canadians have a more emotional connection to the holiday. Certainly Americans assume that I would have an emotional connection to Canadian Thanksgiving. I've had those who know about the holiday go out of their way to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving in October. I smile and say, "Thank you", but other than memories of past dinners with my family I don't have a particular tie to that day off. As I said, other Canadians may feel differently. I am not a typical Canadian.

In school in Ontario we learned the same pilgrim story as American kids, but with the serial numbers filed off. There were pilgrims with blunderbuses and friendly natives willing to share food, but there was no direct Plymouth Rock connection. Miles Standish and that lot were American artifacts. Canadian kids had nameless pilgrims in the same tall black hats and pantaloons, but without any of the "mythology". It felt like a pale immitation. I've never fully understood why Canadian school kids were given this bastardized American tale as their own "origin" story. For years I thought it was Canada succumbing to American cultural imperialism. Today I have a different theory. I think I may have figured out where this story came from.

Canada was settled by the French in Quebec and Atlantic Canada until they were defeated by the British in the Seven Years War in North America (known to Americans as the French and Indian War). There were no "pilgrims" (Puritan settlers from Britain escaping religious intolerance) as such. They were French colonists, and almost all of them were Roman Catholic. The first French settlers were traders and trappers in the area around Quebec City. The first "permanent" settlement, led by Samuel de Champlain, was almost wiped out due to scurvy and smallpox during the winter of 1608-09. Twenty of the 28 settlers died. Late in the winter, members of Canada's First Nations tribes saved the remaining colonists by giving them a tea made from pine needles. Indians bearing icky tasting tree tea to sick Frenchmen with bleeding gums isn't quite as attractive as the American thanksgiving story, which always ends with natives and pilgrims sitting around a picnic table with corn and roast turkey. America has always come across as sexier than Canada.

After the Seven Years War, the British settled Atlantic Canada forcing out the Acadians in what we would now call "ethnic cleansing". (These Acadians escaped to Quebec, and to other French possesions, including a large number who travelled to the territory of Louisiana, where "Acadian" became corrupted into "Cajun". In a very real sense southern Louisiana was settled by Canadians.) Ontario was originally settled by British settlers, most of whom were United Empire Loyalists (citizens of the Thirteen Colonies who were forced out because they thought the American Revolution was a bad idea; you don't hear much about them in popular portrayals of the Revolution, surprisingly enough). In order to speed up the development of the land, settlers were awarded good sized tracts of land virtually for free. This resulted in a lot of landless Americans moving to Ontario. (There were fears during the War of 1812 that these settlers were still "American" and would help in the invasion of Canada; that fear turned out to be unfounded.)

To make a very long story short, I think this may have been where the Pilgrim story swept into popular Canadian history. Ontario was largely settled by people with a connection to the original American Thirteen Colonies, one way or another, and thus English-speaking Canadians of Eastern and Central Canada have roots common to Americans. Quebeckers have a different "origin" story, of course, and the pilgrim story told in Ontario grossly simplifies (and confuses) the story of Canada's settlement. At any rate, I was always confused as to why the story of the Pilgrims had any connection to me living in Ontario when it was so obvioiusly an American story. It appears that it was just an easy way to explain things to grade school students who would not appreciate the story of war, displacement, and rebellion that was the story of English Canada's founding.

Regardless of the origin story, Canadian Thanksgiving is a three day event that has the big feast on the last day. American Thankstgiving is just... better.

It takes place in late November. That's a biggie. In Ontario we had a long weekend at the end of May (Victoria Day, around the 24th of May, also called the "May two-four" weekend, mostly because "two-four" is slang for a case of beer), July 1 (Canada Day), the first Monday in August (a civic holiday, known as Simcoe Day in Ontario, and a very civilized thing to have in the middle of a summer!), Labour Day in early September, and then Thanksgiving in early October. Then there's nothing until Christmas day, two and a half months later, while the weather gets bad. There is Rememberance Day (equivalent to the U.S.'s Veterans Day) but only government workers, or people working in government controlled industries like banks, got that day off. I know we got Rememberance Day off from school when I was younger but they abandoned that. Sad, really, but I digress. Those two and a half months, coming as they do in bad weather, are interminable. Having the holidy in November is much better. (I think U.S. Thanksgiving is actually a little too late, as it's only five weeks until Christmas. Earlier in the month would have been better still.)

In the U.S., the big feast is on the first day of the holiday! How refreshing! Most Americans get the Friday off, too, so you have a three day work week, a feast, then three days to recover. How terribly civilized (except for the shopping on Friday morning, but I'll get to that next post). And, of course, there's football. There's football in Canada on Thanksgiving, too, but not like down here, because Saturday and Sunday are big football days. (Relatively few of us who followed professional Canadian football followed Canadian college football.)

So, while I miss my family on Canadian Thanksgiving, I really enjoy American Thanksgiving, and prefer it to its northern cousin. However, as I said earlier, Canada does Christmas better... and that will have to wait for another time.


Michael Skeet said...

A small, finicky correction. The Acadians didn't "make their way" to Louisiana. They were deported by the English. (That whole "Evangeline" thing that Longfellow or whoever wrote that execrable poem about.) The Acadians who remain in New Brunswick have their own flag, by the way, I guess as a sort of snook-cocking at les anglais.

I don't recall there being much of a mythology around thanksgiving when I was growing up in the western division of the GWN. As you say, it was a long weekend with turkey at the end of it. Church always had a harvest display (which struck me as odd-looking because I'd never seen thinks like gourds and squashes growing in Alberta) but there were no big stories.

And there certainly wasn't the big deal about traveling to spend the holiday with family.

I have very fond memories of the one Thanksgiving holiday I spent in the U.S. These memories are fond, I suspect, mostly because other people did all the work. As I recall it, the most strenuous thing I did was shell pistachios while watching football.

Allan Goodall said...

A small, finicky correction. The Acadians didn't "make their way" to Louisiana. They were deported by the English.

I did characterize it as ethnic cleansing. I worded it that way, because I seem to remember there was some question as to where they would go. Some families, I recall, had some small choice in where they went (basically, which ship they could go on) while others had no choice. Some arrived in Louisiana after first hitting other French colonies. St. Martin comes immediately to mind.

So, you are of course correct, but I was attempting to keep my wording deliberately vague.

I don't recall there being much of a mythology around thanksgiving when I was growing up in the western division of the GWN.

I distinctly remember watching a movie about the pilgrims in grade 8. It may have actually been an American movie. In retrospect, it seems almost as though the Ministry of Education in Ontario had no real clue how to explain Thanksgiving in Canada.

I went to Wikipedia and checked out what it had to say about Thanksgiving. Apparently the first Thanksgiving in North America was in Newfoundland and Labrador, with Martin Frobisher giving thanks to surviving his journey (which saw him try to find the Northwest Passage, but establish a settlement instead). They mention other thanksgiving festivals in Canada, and — as I mentioned — the bringing of the American thanksgiving story to Canada via the United Empire Loyalists.

I guess I was right!

And there certainly wasn't the big deal about traveling to spend the holiday with family.

I would say that more times than not, my family would have Thanksgiving on the Sunday instead of the Monday. The advantage of Canada's take on the holiday is that it's easier to split the holiday between branches of a family, going one day to one side of the family and the other day to the other side. Down here, though, having the Thanksgiving feast on a day other than the Thursday is almost unheard of.