It’s that time of year again: American Thanksgiving is here! That means Christmas is right around the corner (according to TV adverts anyway).
But I’m not quite ready for Christmas, so I’m going to put it off by focussing on this holiday.
You’ll notice I’ve said “American” Thanksgiving. Why did I do that? Because Canada has our own celebration that’s separate from our southern neighbour’s.
Most people – even us! – don’t know what the difference is.
I didn’t even know where ours originated since we don’t have fancy after school special like the States did.
But I’m here to fix that. Think of me as your after school special!
I hope you’ll learn something, because I definitely did! I mean, who knew– nope, no spoilers. I’ll let you find out for yourself.
The Indigenous People of Canada have celebrated harvest festivals with rituals, dances and feasts long before the arrival of Europeans. While the holiday is sometimes said to be inspired by them, these celebrations are not formally considered Thanksgivings.
Canadian Thanksgiving began in 1578 when Sir Martin Frobisher and his team had a “feast” (I’m using that term loosely because salt beef doesn’t exactly sound decadent) to celebrate landing in what is now Nunavut. He and his team were searching for the Northwest Passage. After a tumultuous journey, he and his crew gave thanks to God through their Chaplin for their safe arrival.
So our Thanksgiving celebrations began 17 years before the Plymouth ones – the American’s story of Thanksgiving. Maybe that will teach Americans to stop telling us ours is “wrong,” since theirs started after ours.
In 1606, Quebec hosted a Thanksgiving by Samuel de Champlain to celebrate the return of French men from an expedition.
Nova Scotia began their tradition of Thanksgiving in 1763 to celebrate the end of the Seven Years’ War between the French and the British in Canada.
The tradition spread across Canada slowly until the 1870s when it became popular across the country. In 1872, the country gave thanks for the recovery of King Edward VII from an illness. In 1879 it became an annual event, with a theme dictated by parliament. Usually, we’d give thanks for the harvest, but sometimes the event became about the monarchy.
The date changed throughout the years. Sometimes Thanksgiving was held into December, other times as early as September. In 1931, it was tied to Armistice Day (now Remembrance Day), until it was decided that veterans deserved their own day.
In 1957, the government made it a statutory holiday (except for the Maritimes, where it remains optional) for the 2nd Monday of October to be Thanksgiving.
A lot of Canadian and American traditions seem similar. Thanksgiving feasts will include turkey, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes or squash and corn (I’m getting hungry just writing this!). Some people add in ham, salmon or apple pie. Others add in Canadian classics like Nanaimo bars and butter tarts. In Newfoundland, people have a Jigg’s dinner (a boiled Sunday roast).
Thanksgiving gives us a three day weekend – Saturday, Sunday and Monday. People travel across the country to visit family and friends. Some people use the long weekend to head off on holidays as well.
Typically, people gather on Sunday or Monday for their Thanksgiving dinners.
Our Thanksgiving isn’t about thanking God; it’s about being thankful for the harvest. Religious families may attend a church service or say grace to add religion to celebration. Others may say one thing they’re grateful for while sitting around the table.
My family says silent thanks for the harvest while we stuff our mouths full of hot rolls and warm gravy.
Sport, Parades and TV
Unlike the States, football isn’t a big part of our celebration. The Santa Claus parades aren’t running in early October. There are no aggressive sales the next day. And TV programs aren’t playing A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (which is why I’ve still never seen it).
Our day is much more about the food.
The Native Americans, much like the Canadian Indigenous People, practised harvest festivals long before the Europeans arrived. However, Thanksgiving isn’t considered to have started until the Pilgrims arrived.
There were celebrations giving thanks for harvests in Virginia as early as 1607, but the nation doesn’t recognize that as the beginning of the celebration either.
Instead, Americans consider the feast in October 1621 (see, October isn’t a weird time for Thanksgiving!) in Plymouth by the Pilgrims after a hard year. The celebration marked a successful harvest in the New World after losing most of their people to disease. The Native Americans helped teach them how to survive and gave them food.
Allegedly, there were Native Americans in attendance on the first Thanksgiving. Whether or not that’s true is unclear, but we do know that they weren’t treated well by the Europeans throughout history.
Thanksgiving was celebrated on and off over the years. The settlers had infrequent celebrations for good harvests or to thank god for their blessings. It became a religious holiday then transitioned into a civil one.
In 1789, Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving a holiday. But Jefferson stopped the celebration. Lincoln made it a federal holiday in 1863 during the Civil War. Roosevelt changed the date from the 3rd Thursday to the 4th Thursday of November in 1942.
Now it is celebrated as the beginning of winter and the Christmas season in America.
Americans treat the holiday as an excuse to eat as much food as is humanly possible (…which admittedly so do we). It is said to be the day that the US consumes the most food all year.
If you’ve watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine a million times (like me!), you’ll have heard Thanksgiving called “Turkey Day.” So it makes sense that most households have a turkey for the holiday. Often it’s stuffed, but sometimes deep-fried. They serve it with mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn, pumpkin pie, squash, Brussel sprouts, and pumpkin pie. The vegetables are based on those introduced to the Europeans by the Native Americans.
In the 1950s, green bean casserole became a popular addition to the meal.
Americans are luckier than we are, in that most get a 4 day weekend for the holiday. Because it’s held on a Thursday, schools and government offices close for the Friday as well.
The 4 days are huge for travel, with people flying or driving to see their families.
Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks in the States. The religious origins of the holiday continue with mealtime prayers and people attending church services.
It’s tradition to say one thing that you’re thankful for that year during your feast.
Americans practice charity on Thanksgiving as a way to give back. Most people participate in food drives or help feed homeless people at the Salvation Army.
It’s a more popular tradition in the States than in Canada, but one I wish would gain traction up north.
Sports, Parades and TV
America has scheduled sports, parades and TV programmes around Thanksgiving for years. It’s a wonder they even have time to eat!
The biggest sport on Thanksgiving is American football. There are three professional games held on the Thursday ever year, with college teams playing Thursday through Sunday. It’s like a warm-up for the Super Bowl with how excited people get about watching these games.
Every year Macey’s hosts a Thanksgiving parade in New York on the Thursday. It’s full of themed floats, broadway performances, bands, giant balloon characters and ends with Santa. The arrival of Mr. Claus is an unofficial signal for the start of Christmas.
Other cities like Detroit and Philadelphia run parades as well. Most are televised so people can watch them while making (or eating) their feast.
Because the US seems to run television, almost every show starts airing Thanksgiving episodes. Families gather around massive meals, watch football, fight and eventually give thanks for each other (or at least that seems to be the trend).
The most baffling tradition is the presidential turkey pardon.
Every year since 1989, when George H W Bush made it permanent, the president pardons a turkey’s life. It gets sent to a petting zoo to live out the rest of its days.
The origin of the tradition is murky. Some say is was Truman, other say it was Lincoln that may have done this first. We do know that JFK spared a turkey since he didn’t plan to eat it. And Reagan jokingly pardoned a turkey on air that was then sent to a petting zoo.
Nowadays 2 turkeys are on hand in case 1 is unavailable for the ceremony.
You’ll notice Canada has no equivalent. That’s because this insanity originated with the States.
As a further push towards Christmas, retailers in the US started discounting merchandise on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Since the end of the 20th century, it’s grown into a chaotic, early morning sales riot. People plan their meals around attending events first thing in the morning.
Now, the sales are starting on Thanksgiving Thursday as well, causing even more shopping nightmares.
The trend has spread. Now there is a Small Business Saturday and a Cyber Monday.
Even if you aren’t in the States, you’ll likely see these sales. I’m in UK and already Ryanair and EasyJet are emailing me with their Black Friday discounts. Don’t they know they aren’t American??
So there you have it: Canadian vs. American Thanksgiving. Honestly, I never learned any of this in history class. We were too focused on what to do with a buffalo’s bladder (no joke).
Hopefully this will explain the whole event to my British friends, and maybe get Americans to see our Thanksgiving as just as valid.
But if not, at least we all learned something!
Does your country have a celebration to give thanks or appreciate the harvest? Is it all about food? Are there turkeys involved?
Either way, I want to hear about it!
Comment below to share your traditions with me.