Food & Drink

We All Need to Stop and Recognize Canadian Thanksgiving

thanksgiving feast on a canadian flag
Milleflore Images/Shutterstock

They walk among us. Barely noticed, save for a stray "eh," or a jarringly unnecessary (and heavily rounded) "sorry." You will know them by their pervasive knowledge of hockey standings, the subtle scent of maple syrup, and their general aura of good health (thanks universal health care!).

Canadians.

Their mainstream holidays are similar to the mainstream holidays in the United States. They yule-out on December 25. They trick-or-treat at the end of October. But there is one glaring, Turducken-sized exception to this celebration template: Canadian Thanksgiving.

Yes, the casual American might assume that Canada either A) doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving, because shit, they aren't even Americans, damn it!; B) Canada just follows suit and tunes into the Cowboys game over a hot plate of homemade stuffing and store-bought cranberry sauce; or C)... they've never assumed, because they don't really care.

But Canadian Thanksgiving is real. And… it's familiar. It's like if you pushed American Thanksgiving through a Wonka-esque Instant-Canada machine. It's like looking at our holiday through a maple-leafed funhouse mirror. It has turkey and stuffing and family dinners, but does it all without the whitewashing, cultural appropriation, and Pilgrim stuff.

But instead of trying to understand it as a pale imitation of our own holy holiday, we should treat it as its own, independent entity (which, of course, it is), and not a weird little Canadian satellite orbiting around our Turkey Day.

This is Canadian Thanksgiving, and why you should care about it.

Just to be clear: Canada Celebrates Thanksgiving?

Yes, every year, on the second Monday in October. It is a national holiday, and it's widely celebrated (though, less so in Quebec... but they are kind of French, so casually not caring about things in general is basically their MO).

So, it's basically our Thanksgiving… earlier?

Well -- aside from the earlier date and alternative history (more on that later) -- Canksgiving doesn't just have its own set of slight particularities. It just has a different tone.

First of all, it's on a Monday. So inherently, people are really only getting a three-day weekend, instead of an American four-day (often 4 1/2-day) weekend. And, many Canadians actually do the dinner-thing at some point over the weekend, and not specifically on the designated Monday. This certainly plays into what might be the biggest difference between Canadian and American Thanksgiving: Canadian Thanksgiving is just a lot less of a big deal.

"It's just not as big of an event," said Tom O'Quinn, Thrillist's creative director, born in Canada. "Here, it seems to be a holiday that even rivals Christmas as far as people traveling, visiting family members, really celebrating. It's a lot more low-key in Canada. Or at least, it was for me and the people I know."

This was one statement that echoed from Canadians I spoke with, almost unanimously: Thanksgiving for them was pretty much what it's like for Americans (turkey, stuffing, tablecloths, politically charged uncles)... just on a smaller scale. There's not really giant parades or school plays or Black Friday midnight bloodbath-fueling flash sales. There is an annual football game though, always featuring the Montreal Alouettes (in this case, the Canadian analogue to the Dallas Cowboys). But focusing on comparing it to the American turkey behemoth is just rude.

We should recognize it as it's own holiday, existing free of any Americanized trappings. Because really, it has nothing to do with America, at all. 

Wikimedia

Why do they celebrate Thanksgiving then? Are they copying us Americans? Are they stealing our culture?!

Hardly. When I asked some Canadian friends if they knew the roots of Canadian Thanksgiving -- or Canksgiving, my personal syncope for the holiday -- most of them gave a vague and uncertain "...um, the harvest?" answer. And they aren't totally wrong.

There are heavy overtones and influences present from European autumnal harvest festivals, and in general, it is more of a fall harvest festival than our own seasonal disembodied holiday. But Canksgiving specifically celebrates a 1578 exploratory trip through the Northwest Passage (to present-day Nunavut), in which Englishman and old-timey explorer Sir Martin Frobisher failed to reach his destination because he lost so many ships and supplies. Still -- as a precursor to modern-day Canadian-nice, maybe -- Frobisher's crew decided to settle down for a night, and give thanks that they were still alive and would still be able to go home and wear their favorite frock one day.

After years of an official on again, off again relationship with the holiday -- which had been steadily growing in popularity since the Puritan-led 1770s -- Canadian parliament officially made Thanksgiving the second Monday of October in 1957. 

What do Canadians think of their holiday?

"Well, I always thought of it as simply just the start of the autumn season and another holiday I got to spend with family. Our family would always have a large dinner or lunch on the holiday Monday," said Jonathan Nehmetallah, a lawyer currently living in Toronto, Ontario (but originally from Windsor, just across from Detroit). He generally had warm feelings about the holiday (while expressing the same familiar frustrations with occasionally having dinner with extended family). But, he also admitted to some red, white, and blue Thanksgiving envy.

"Since I grew up in a border town I was always jealous of 'American Thanksgiving,' as it always seemed like more fun. Better football, bigger parade in Detroit, and it seemed to kick of the Christmas season," he said, while also recognizing that, though widely celebrated, it's not really a source of Canadian pride, per se. 

"Thanksgiving has always been about food growing up, which I don't think differs all that much from American Thanksgiving," said Andrew Yung, co-founder of Pintrill and a Toronto native. "We don't have any of the contemporary pop-cultural references though: Charlie Brown, Addams Family Values... the holiday doesn't conjure any images of pilgrims breaking bread with natives or, presently, the much more disturbing weight of how that contact took place. 

"And I can't say it ever felt like a source of Canadian pride... it's always felt a little more like a celebration of 'fall' and harvest in general... and eating gourds?"

 

Shutterstock/Brent Hofacker

... and the food?

Traditionally, Canksgiving has most (if not all) of the gravy-laced trappings of a stereotypical American Thanksgiving. But -- just like in the good ol' US of A -- there's plenty of room to add in cultural touches and familial traditions. 

"My mom is an amazing home cook and the food traditions around holidays to her are sacred, meaning turkey on Thanksgiving is essential and necessary. The turkey is always a Butterball and could always be found defrosting in the garage the day before," Yung said. "Overall the spread is a fairly balanced blend of what you might expect from a traditional Thanksgiving spread with some Chinese influences. For example, our turkey was seasoned with ginger and garlic until we started deep frying our turkeys about 15 years ago (fryer courtesy of my American uncle John)."

Of course.

What do Canadians think about American Thanksgiving, overall?

"First off, the football is better. Sorry but the CFL isn't that enjoyable and I have no attachment to it (Go Lions). The parades are better. I vividly remember watching the Detroit parade when I was younger. The television specials are better. American Thanksgiving is big and loud... and I love it," said Nehmetallah. 

And, that seems to be the overarching theme here: Thanksgiving, in Canada, is a lot like Thanksgiving in the United States, that's undeniable. But, to think, for any reason, that Canadian Thanksgiving is a ripoff, a budget version, or a Mountie-accented impression is nothing but an exercise in American arrogance.

It's a day that exists free of American trappings. And that is part of the beauty. It's a Canadian holiday -- nothing more. And in some Canadians minds, namely Nehmetallah, that's a reason to be grateful. 

"I think the most negative thing about Canadian patriotism is that it so often seems to be obsessed with asserting that 'we're not American,'" he said. "But I believe that this, Canadian Thanksgiving, isn't one of those things... thankfully."

So Americans: Just let them have it. For once, try not to be a dick. OK?

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer at Thrillist and a passionate doer of other stuff. For more info, you'll have to do a free background check.