Today is Canadian Thanksgiving, a mysterious holiday that Americans are either surprised to learn exists or assume is the same as theirs.
Today is Thanksgiving in Canada. Celebrated every year on the second Monday of October, this national holiday is a much quieter affair than its American counterpart. As the New York Times reported last year, many Americans are not even aware of the existence of Canadian Thanksgiving. Its discovery leads to "suspicion that on the other side of the border, time does not behave in the same way."
Those unwitting Americans should not be blamed, however, since it is easy to overlook Canadian Thanksgiving. We celebrate with much less fanfare and advertising than our southern neighbors do -- and this is precisely why I love the holiday so much. There is no Black Friday, no rampant consumerism, nor any other major holidays within months, so the focus remains very much on the gathering of family and friends for the purposes of enjoying good food and a few days off work during a lovely time of year.
The holiday's origins remain murky, even to us Canadians. We do not have the same Pilgrim story that is taught to every American child, although there are attempts to recreate it. Christine Sismondo wrote for Macleans:
"Some cite a celebratory meal held by Martin Frobisher upon his arrival in 1578, but since that involved tinned beef and mushy peas, that feels like a stretch. More germane than this story is the meaty celebration hosted by Samuel de Champlain in Port-Royal on Nov. 14, 1606, which saw Europeans and Indigenous peoples breaking bread together. It was organized as part of the 'Order of Good Cheer' dinner party series that was invented to make sure the colonists ate and drank enough to stave off scurvy and malnutrition."
It all sounds wonderfully entertaining, but is sadly inaccurate.
By the mid-1800s there was an emphasis on Canadian Thanksgiving as a valuable part of forging a national identity, something seen as crucial for Confederation to occur. By the end of the century, many Thanksgiving sermons focused on Canada's moral superiority to the United States, which was viewed as having been "punished for its slaveholding past with a devastating civil war." (Ironically, Canada had embarked on its own version of cultural genocide in its attempts to "Christianize and civilize the Indian," as quoted in a Thanksgiving sermon from 1885.)
The official date for Thanksgiving did not get set until 1957. The choice was controversial at the time, with some people saying it catered to urbanites who wanted a day off when the weather was good, while farmers continued to harvest their crops. Now, however, it is difficult to imagine a better time. The fact that Thanksgiving falls right in the middle of harvest season feels right. The table is overflowing with abundant local produce.
My family celebrates much of Thanksgiving weekend outside. I return to my parents' home in Muskoka, Ontario, every year for a weekend of hiking through the forest, sitting around a campfire, chopping firewood, canoeing, and -- unusually this year -- swimming in the lake. It was so warm this year that we had our annual feast on the screen porch overlooking the lake.
Our celebratory meal is based on what Mom grows in her garden -- squash, tomatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, potatoes. The free-range meat (usually turkey, though sometimes duck) is supplied by a local farmer. We all spend hours in the kitchen together, cooking and experimenting with substitutions, since we have to make do with what we have (no corner store nearby in the middle of the bush) -- hence, my pumpkin pies turning out to be kabocha squash and goat cheese tarts, instead.
We sit with friends and family, eating and drinking till we're stuffed, and, as the ritual goes, sharing what we're most thankful for. It's a rare holiday that leaves one feeling relaxed and replenished, grounded and grateful.