Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American holiday. While there is a long tradition of celebrating and giving thanks for the harvest on both sides of the Atlantic, the whole “turkey and trimmings, pilgrims on the Mayflower” theme of the holiday sets our Thanksgiving apart. Growing up, we were taught to think on this holiday as a time of cooperation between the European settlers and the First Nations who inhabited the continent long before the Age of Exploration.
The first yearly Thanksgiving celebrations after Confederation date back to November 6, 1879 – though the holiday as we know it today actually began in the Province of Canada in 1859. The roots of the holiday run much deeper, to European harvest festivals and First Nations celebrations of thanksgiving. (The Haudenosaunee, in whose traditional territory I was raised, celebrated thirteen different Thanksgiving festivals. Some of these lasted several days at a stretch, like the Midwinter Ceremony around the time of the January new moon: it went on for nine days.)
And although Canadians are very familiar with the lore of the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in 1621, we look back to even earlier celebrations associated with explorers like Champlain and Frobisher. You could say that although our official celebrations began in the 19th century, the Thanksgiving tradition in Canada may be rooted in the 17th or even the 16th century.
What Day Does Thanksgiving Fall On?
While our American neighbours celebrate Thanksgiving between Halloween and Christmas, Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated much earlier, on the second Monday in the month of October. Thanksgiving has been fixed on this day since 1957, though the holiday had been celebrated in Canada for hundreds of years before that. This timing coincides with the (controversial) holiday of Columbus Day in the United States.
Thanksgiving is a national holiday in Canada. It is a statutory (paid) holiday in all provinces and territories except the Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Canadian Thanksgiving Food Traditions
A traditional Canadian Thanksgiving dinner is pretty similar to an American one. Turkey is usually the main dish on the Thanksgiving menu. The sides include gravy and stuffing (or dressing, as we called it growing up) as well as cranberries, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other trimmings a family enjoys. I know some people absolutely must eat Brussels sprouts with their turkey dinner, but I’m not aware of it being a particular tradition in Canada. We usually do glazed carrots and maybe a green salad. Mom likes to make broccoli salads these days, and they are very popular with the kids.
The stuffing is usually made with a wheat-based bread and not a cornbread stuffing as is more common south of the border. My mother always made her turkey dressing from the turkey giblets – the turkey liver, to be more precise. She’d chop the liver up into small bits and pan fry it with some onion and celery. The stuffing was made with cubed slices of white bread and seasoned with sage.
Also, we don’t tend to do the candied yam thing here in Canada. And we definitely never got the memo about putting marshmallows on top of sweet potato casserole. Most folks here just bake them and serve them like normal baked potatoes. And it turns out, preparing them this way also boosts their vitamin C content. That’s a huge plus in my book!
In some parts of Canada, a boiled dinner is preferred to a turkey. In Newfoundland, this meal is also known as Jiggs’ dinner. It consists of corned beef or some other salted beef or pork, boiled with cabbage and root vegetables such as turnips, parsnips, potatoes, and carrots. You may also find Canadians who like to serve a Thanksgiving ham.
Pumpkin pies are often on the menu for dessert, but you might also find apple pie since apples are in season around this time. Sweet potato pie is not something you would find on too many Canadian tables. But you might find butter tarts, a traditional Canadian dessert. In British Columbia, Nanaimo bars are popular; in Quebecois you might find sucre à la crème or a tarte au sucre!
The turkey is probably the most popular Thanksgiving symbol in Canada, though we are also seeing a lot more squash and pumpkins now. This may be due to more people eating squash as a regular part of our diet these days. Back in the 70s, I think most of us treated them the same way we did pumpkins: as decor.
The cornucopia, or horn of plenty, is another symbol that all Canadian children used to be taught around Thanksgiving. The horn is filled with vegetables, fruits and nuts that remind us of the abundance of the harvest.
Another symbol we learned to associate with Thanksgiving at an early age is “Indian” corn, otherwise known as flint corn, or sometimes calico corn because of its mottled colouring. Its botanical name is Zea mays var. indurata, a reference to the hard outer layer that protects the soft part inside the kernels. Flint corn is dried and used to make flour, cornmeal, and hominy. We grew up thinking of this corn as a decoration, as we often saw it hung on doors or added to a table centrepiece but we never saw anyone cooking with it. But the First Nations peoples who lived in North America before our European ancestors knew this corn well and grew it for eating.
What Canadian Kids Learned About Thanksgiving
Growing up in Canada in the 70s, we learned about Thanksgiving pretty much the same way that American schoolchildren did. We learned about the pilgrims and the Mayflower, and how the “Indians” (we now call them First Nations or Indigenous peoples) shared their harvest feast with the European settlers on the very first Thanksgiving.
The American Thanksgiving story had migrated north with the Loyalists around the time of the American Revolution and it became part of our culture too, as did many of the foods we now associate with the holiday, like turkey and pumpkin pie (neither of which was probably eaten at the first Thanksgiving meal.)
The Very First Thanksgiving
While Canadian children have been taught the American Thanksgiving story, Canada has contributed some very different chapters to the Thanksgiving story. In part, those contributions relate to just when the very first Thanksgiving took place.
Some people say the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America was not the Plymouth Rock feasts of 1621, but rather Martin Frobisher’s celebration on Baffin island (in what is now the territory of Nunavut) in 1578. This celebration of thanksgiving, more than 40 years before the Mayflower landed in North America, doesn’t seem to have included any Indigenous people. Being that the occasion was one of giving thanks for surviving the rough seas – not for a bountiful harvest – it’s difficult to fit this story into the Thanksgiving narrative. While some Canadian writers have tried, these claims have been criticized.
In 1606, Samuel de Champlain founded l‘Ordre de Bon Temps (“The Order of Good Cheer”) to help keep spirits up in the Habitation at Port-Royal. The French settlers were shocked by the severity of Canadian winters and many had died of scurvy during the previous winter. The Order of Good Cheer was instituted in an effort to boost morale and provide nutritious meals that would keep the settlers healthy throughout the harsh winter months. Champlain’s guests to the bi-weekly dinners included the colony’s elite and members of the Mi’kmaq community. Foods served at the feasts were supplied by French settlers who took turns hunting and trading with their Aboriginal neighbours. The dishes included some foods that were familiar to the Europeans and others that were introduced to them by the First Nations people with whom they interacted.
Because of this festive atmosphere and the cooperation between Europeans and Indigenous people, Champlain’s feasts are also sometimes put forth as a possible origin of Thanksgiving in Canada. While this assertion is also criticized, l‘Ordre de Bon Temps does set a precedent for amicable relations and shared meals between the Europeans and the First Nations with whom they traded.
Canada’s Early Official Thanksgiving Celebrations
Whether we accept or reject the Frobisher and Champlain celebrations as an authentic part of Thanksgiving history in Canada, there is still more to tell. Canada held official Thanksgiving celebrations at various times to give thanks for the end of a war or the survival of a royal heir who had been gravely ill. And beginning in 1859, Protestant clergy members in Canada were petitioning the government to hold official Thanksgiving celebrations of a distinctly nationalistic flavour.
Thanksgiving in Canada was, in part, a reaction to the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – a book that shocked the world and challenged the creation story of the Bible. A day of prayer that pointed to the abundant harvest as proof that God exists was their way to address the crisis of faith Darwin had stirred up. Thanksgiving promoted a Protestant, English-speaking Canada in a time of conflicting interests from both America and the conquered people of New France.
Over time, Thanksgiving has lost its religious and nationalistic flavour. Apparently, the railways played a role in the secularization of Thanksgiving, marketing the holiday as a time to travel to family gatherings during the early 20th century. Right into the 21st century, Thanksgiving has retained that focus on the family and on taking time away from work for a relaxing break. Unlike our American neighbours, we don’t see it as a time for shopping. If anything, many businesses and stores are closed for the day. And then everyone is back to work on the Tuesday!
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Original content ©2014-2017 Kyla Matton Osborne, aka #RubyWriter
Note: This is an updated edition of an article first published on Bubblews
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