Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving: Canada and United States

As a newcomer to the United States ten years ago, and to California specifically, I have discovered more cultural differences than I had imagined. To repeat myself from my August 1st posting, a lot of folks figured that I would have no difficulty making the transition to American culture. As I heard over and over, "There really isn't much difference between Canadians and Americans anyway."  Fallacy. There are differences. Huge differences! 

For example consider the fall holiday of Thanksgiving. Both countries celebrate it but on different days and for different reasons. In Canada the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday happened on Thursday, January 31, 1957, when the Canadian Parliament proclaimed:  “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”  Canadian Thanksgiving coincides with the observance of Columbus Day in the United States.  It is a nice three day weekend in October with some turkey and pumpkin pie thrown in for good measure.  It is not even a statutory (national) holiday.  When I was a child on the grain farm, sometimes my family would still be harvesting wheat or barley or oats at Thanksgiving time. Those years we had no real celebration. Magically, though, a roast chicken and a pumpkin pie would appear in the meals that my mother cooked and hauled to the field for the workers to eat as they sat in the car with the doors open or leaned on the outside of the car and ate standing up.   

Checking the chaff to see how much wheat is ending up in the field instead of the hopper.
Three generations of farmers bringing in the harvest.
Even if we did have a celebration, it was a very low-key affair.  Canadian Thanksgiving honors no pilgrims and has no First Thanksgiving feast to remember.  Rather, it is more like a small celebration of the end of harvest.  (And a reason for a three day weekend in October.) 

Canada IS very big on having a three day weekend every month of the year and has created some real doozies to justify it.  Let’s see, the first Monday in August is Saskatchewan Day.  The third Monday in February is Family Day.  Alberta has Heritage Day in August. More traditional holidays like Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, and Good Friday, the Friday immediately preceding Easter Sunday, are holidays that are not celebrated in the United States. 

In Canada when it was time for Thanksgiving it meant that it was also time to have the garden emptied; the freezer filled with frozen vegetables and fruits;  the root cellar or cold room filled with potatoes,carrots, turnips, cabbage, pumpkins and jars of pickles, jellies and jams. It was also time for butchering.  It was the end of the road for the steers, pigs, turkeys, geese and chickens that had been fattening all summer.  Because the poultry butchering was my domain, I was always truly thankful when those birds was either in my freezer or in my customers' freezers! 
Carrying a freshly killed bird almost as big as she was!

The crew helping with the butchering...long hard days of messy work.
Thanksgiving in Canada means the end of the endless labors of summer. It is truly a time to give thanks for the bounty of the land and the fruits of our labors.

Thanksgiving here in the United States is different.  This holiday is in remembrance of the first Thanksgiving feast celebrated with the Pilgrims and the First Nations People (Indians for those of you in the USA.) According to legend (disputed by some) after a summer that produced enough food to allow the Pilgrims to live through the winter, they decided to have a celebration.  Native Americans who had taught them how to grow food, how to find game and how to survive in the New Land were invited to the feast. Thus was Thanksgiving first celebrated in the USA. Probably  the participants did not eat big white turkeys and pumpkin pie with whipped cream but instead consumed wild turkeys, geese, cod and corn. In the United States the government creation of the first official Thanksgiving holiday happened in 1863 when President Lincoln announced that there would be a national day of thanksgiving observed on the fourth Thursday of every November.  Through a Canadian's eyes it is a very different holiday than Canadian Thanksgiving. Here it is a HUGE family-oriented holiday commonly called Turkey Day. Most schools and teachers only go to school on Monday and Tuesday of that week.  Since American Thanksgiving is always on Thursday, most working people get to take Friday off as well.  Families often gather at Thanksgiving instead of Christmas.  Thanksgiving is the holiday that is truly about families. There are no obligations to produce gifts or to attend church services. Thanksgiving is about getting together with families and eating good food (oh, and watching a ridiculous amount of televised football). Then Americans' Christmas vacations are free of extended family obligations and they can celebrate at home with their gifts, or go skiing or travelling somewhere warm. 

The day after Thanksgiving here in the USA is also the busiest day for shopping all year.  For some people the shopping is what they like most about Thanksgiving.  With only one month to go until Christmas, the commercial season of Christmas shopping is kicked off at midnight on Thanksgiving night.  The bargains to lure people in their stores are almost ridiculously attractive -- perhaps 75% off the current hot items for the first one hundred shoppers through the doors. Lining up outside stores in the dark with coffee and blankets and bellies still stuffed from Thanksgiving dinner, waiting for the doors to open, trampling over each other in search of the bargains and ripping items out of each other’s hands seem to be common events on "Black Friday" (i.e. the day shops will come out of the ‘red ink’ for the year).  Television coverage always focuses on the traffic, injuries, and violence of the day.  Guns, knives, getting pepper sprayed, and trampled to death are real threats.  Apparently that adds to the appeal for some people as it becomes a high risk sport! Many Canadians flock to their closest American city (think Great Falls if you are from Alberta or Saskatchewan) for the big bargains. 
One of the biggest differences to me between Canadian and American Thanksgivings is that we cook our turkey on the barbecue. It is the California thing to do! And it is delicious! Turkey slow-roasted over a charcoal fire is wonderful! Here is our turkey, stuffed with cornbread stuffing, rubbed with vegetable oil and carried to the barbecue by a shirtless man (to avoid the oil dripping off the turkey and onto his shirt). The turkey is then plunked on the barbecue, the barbecue lid is lowered and it cooks slowly for about five hours. We collect the drippings in an aluminum foil pie pan so that I can make the gravy. The turkey and gravy have a slightly smokey taste 
that has been enough to convert this old-fashioned cook (me) to actually prefer the barbecued turkey over the oven model! On the right you can see what our turkey looks like when it comes off the grill on its way to the table! 

Pushed to make a choice, I would choose American Thanksgiving over Canadian any day. I am not a traitor to my country by any means. Listen to my reasons. They are simple.  I truly love big family gatherings, and Thanksgiving is so much more a family event in the USA than it is in Canada.  Part of the reason is that it is on a Thursday and with the right job and some luck, you can count on a five day weekend with your family. You get to have the BIG meal and then relax until Sunday to travel home. In Canada if you have the BIG meal on Thanksgiving Day, it is on Monday and then you have to travel home to work the next day. Canadian Thanksgiving is too rushed! Another reason that I think that American Thanksgiving is so special is the history that comes with the day.  Canadian Thanksgiving holds the most meaning for farm families, in my opinion, as it has been associated with the end of harvest, the end of the labor-filled summers. Most of the Canadian population now has next to nothing to do with farms or farmers so the symbolism of the bountiful harvest is lost on them. At least in the United States everyone can relate to the history of the Pilgrims, Native Americans, wild turkeys and the first Thanksgiving feast. This history combines to conjure rich stories and traditions for every age. Ok. I admit that I am a big fan of American Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Some explanation is necessary....

Absence makes the heart grow fonder (an American proverb). No, it does not. In fact, it may be argued that
"absence makes the heart wander" (an English proverb). For those of you who have given up on me and my blog because of my lengthy absence, I want to explain.

This is my tenth year as a high school special education teacher. This has also been my hardest year to date. My workload increased exponentially because I began to teach 9th graders (freshmen for my American readers) again after teaching only 11th and 12th graders (juniors and seniors) for the last five years. Freshmen are a unique type of student. They have neither the maturity nor the motivation of the older students. They have very recently left their smallish middle (junior high) schools where they were the big-shots, the oldest and the most elite of students.They have been plunged into a huge high school (1800 students) where they are considered 'babies', insignificant and worthy of daily contempt. It seems that these students (90% of my special education students are boys) act out and misbehave in ways calculated to make their mark and get noticed in the school. Frequent physical altercations (fights), disruptive and disrespectful behavior in class ("No, you may not teach the class any new gang signs.") and attempts to make themselves look tough and street-wise ("Stop drawing gun tattoos on your arms.") are part and parcel of teaching this population. Selling candies to other students by telling them that they are really drugs, and selling hot chili peppers to challenge their friends to eat in the hopes that they throw up and having burping and farting contests are truly freshman activities.

Freshmen come to school each day with tremendous energy, and their teachers must expend tremendous energy to corral the freshmen's energy into learning what is on the curriculum. Returning to teaching freshmen has been exhausting and challenging to me. Finally, after the twelve week mark in the school year, I can say that we have settled into manageable classroom routines. Just the other day as the students were doing a reading exercise in English class, I could actually hear the clock tick. I almost wept.  I know we will have many more days of eraser-throwing, tripping, punching, texting, talking and yelling. But on that day at that time, they were all simultaneously doing their assignments. Hallelujah!

My work load also increased with a new role assigned to me in the Special Education department.  This year whenever a student is referred for testing to determine if they need special education services, I am the education specialist assigned to do the academic testing. It is very interesting work. I find it quite challenging to test the students, gather observations from the other teachers, write the final reports and arrange the meetings to go over the results. It is also very time-consuming. I have been amazed at the number of these referrals this year, and I've been told that it is more than in previous years. To sum up, I have been absolutely overwhelmed by my work load this year.

My desk in my home office doing grades, lesson plans and reports.

My husband, a high school teacher with 45 years in the classroom, and who still loves teaching has assured me that every teacher has a year like the one I am having. A year in which they question if they even want to continue as a teacher. He tells me I am lucky that it took until my 10th year for this to happen. Many teachers have this kind of year early in their career and they simply find another profession. He assures me that I will survive this year. I want to believe him. So I prepare my lessons, grade my papers, write my reports, test my referred students, maintain the best order I can in the classroom every day, go to bed early, get up earlier than ever to get an early start on the next day. Then do it all again the next day.

Is the purpose of this entry to whine and complain? Not really. I felt that I needed to explain why my blog has been idle and to ask my readers to have patience! Please check back once in awhile and see my new postings. I promise that I will be writing more frequently now.

Off to bed now.More writing in the near future!