If you enjoy the combination of pie, long weekends, bursts of autumnal colour, and confusing your neighbours, then Canadian Thanksgiving might just be the holiday for you.
Those neighbours (neighbors?) are, of course, residents of the United States. The great superpower next door has its own famous Thanksgiving holiday, which takes place in the second half of November each year. The Canadian version, however, takes place around six weeks earlier on the second Monday in October. When residents of Canada share a social media status saying ‘Happy Thanksgiving!’ or ‘Happy Turkey Day!’ they might just make their friends in the US think they are in a Back to the Future movie. (Try it, we bet it works.)
But what is Canadian Thanksgiving? Why is it a holiday? And why is it held in early October? Let’s find out.
First, it’s actually only a statutory holiday in central and western Canada. If you live in one of the Atlantic provinces (Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, or Nova Scotia), you may notice that it is only an optional holiday in those provinces. This means that around six percent of the Canadian population lives in a place where they may have to go to work today. On the other hand, they get to live in one of the most peaceful, beautiful regions of the world so, you know, swings and roundabouts.
While today it may seem that Thanksgiving is just an excuse to join with family and friends and consume a week’s worth of food in one sitting, the holiday’s roots go a little deeper than that. Thanksgiving has been used at various points in Canadian history, both pre- and post-Confederation, as a way to bind a people as one.
Today, we think of Canada as a diverse, multicultural land where backgrounds, tastes, languages, and goals are shared among people who see Canada as their home. Decades and centuries ago, however, Canada was vast and largely empty of people – far emptier than today. Having a national community or identity among the relatively few people who inhabited the land was difficult. As late as 1936, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King stated that “If some countries have too much history, we have too much geography,” thereby implying that the country’s national story was weak in spots. Size isn’t everything, as they say.
But you have to go way back to 1578 to find the first instance of what many historians consider the first Thanksgiving (note: that is around four decades earlier than the date most Americans trace their Thanksgiving holiday to, so next time someone says that Canada is just mimicking the US, you can tell them it works both ways). In search of the Northwest Passage, voyager Martin Frobisher and his men lost one of 15 ships to the icy conditions, preventing the expedition from continuing at that time. The team’s traveling minister then offered a sermon, offering thanks for their onward success and survival.
Soon afterward, French settlers under the stewardship of Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec City, also held feasts of thanks. Again, these feasts took place before the first American Thanksgiving. These settlers even founded L’ordre de Bon Temps, translated as the Order of Good Cheers or the Order of the Good Time, and held feasts with First Nations communities. Now, doesn’t that sound like an organization you’d like to be a member of?
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, special days of Thanksgiving were held in various parts of what is now Canada. During the American Revolution, individuals and families who remained loyal to Britain moved from the newly-founded United States north to Canada, bringing with them the more formalised customs of the American Thanksgiving: turkey, pumpkin, and all the trimmings.
By this time, different regions of Canada celebrated Thanksgiving on different dates, often associating the day with success in military affairs. Between 1850 and 1865, Thanksgiving was observed six times – typically in response to a specific event, so the feast was periodic, rather than regularized.
It wasn’t until 1879 when Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday, observed annually and on one specific day. This was a time when new sparsely-populated territories were joining the Canadian confederation; a nationally-instituted Thanksgiving holiday was just one way in which the country could assert its identity. Initially Thanksgiving was held in November, but this was later switched to the second Monday in October, coinciding with the harvest which, owing to Canada’s cooler climate, is earlier than in the US.
Today, Thanksgiving is often an excuse to get out of the city and up to the cottage one final time before winter sets in. Canadians from coast to coast, even in those Atlantic provinces where it is not a statutory holiday, find time to be with family and friends. The Canadian Football League holds nationally televised games as the Thanksgiving Day Classic, and some cities, such as Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario, host a special parade. These are just a few of the many events taking place across the country.
If you haven’t yet done so, make sure you have downloaded our Getting Started Guide, filled with tips for newcomers to Canada!