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!


  1. The difference is interesting, especially because in Canada we are so Americanized that many of us think our Thanksgiving is about the First Nation people as well. It was only recently that someone pointed out the difference to me. I love that I was a farm kid and I can truly understand the meaning of Canadian Thanksgiving. I also worry and wonder about how I will give Thanksgiving meaning for my son.

    Again, a good piece, but I am more compelled to read and respond to your more personal pieces.

  2. Nice piece about Thanksgiving. I learned something that I did not know (Canadian Thanksgiving). Thanksgiving for me has always been about family and the MEAL. My grandson, Ocean looks forward to the meal(always asking will you be having us for dinner?).

    I too like reading about your personal stuff. But in response to Angela---I liked learning about Canada(which was your rememberances. Thanks for interesting reading. Keep it coming.


Alright, let's get this straight. I CRAVE feedback and I am thick-skinned. I thank you in advance for your words!