Why Is Canadian Thanksgiving So Different From American Thanksgiving?

It doesn't have the backstory and it's not nearly so big a deal, but it is still wonderful.

dinner table filled with thanksgiving feast with family mingling in kitchen

manonallard / Getty Images

The second Monday in October is the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, which is sort of like American Thanksgiving but not nearly as big a deal and with none of that New England Plymouth Pilgrim backstory. Most Canadians have their big family get-togethers at Christmas, which is a two-day holiday here with Boxing Day tacked on. For Thanksgiving, there are no Black Friday sales—although the stores really try—and for most people, it's pretty low-key.

This has a lot to do with the holiday's history, which is muddy. Some say the holiday dates back to Martin Frobisher giving thanks for surviving a tough voyage to the Arctic in 1578. Others ascribe it to Samuel de Champlain in 1604 and his Order of Good Cheer, illustrated above, a clever idea that kept the gang happy through the very long winters. The reality (and the reason it's such a big deal in Ontario) is probably more prosaic: thousands of Americans who supported the Crown in the American Revolution moved north and brought their traditions with them, including turkey and pumpkin on Thanksgiving.

Nobody quite knew when to celebrate it, either. It bounced around from late October and early November until 1921 when it was decided to celebrate it with Armistice Day (now Veterans Day in the U.S., Remembrance Day in Canada), the solemn holiday honoring the dead of the Great War. This was not a good idea because Canada, which fought for four years, lost a disproportionately large number of soldiers in the trenches, so Nov. 11 is a somber remembrance while Thanksgiving is a happy holiday.

In 1931, the two were separated. It took until 1957 for Parliament to fix Thanksgiving as the second Monday in October. All the farmers still bringing in the crops thought it ridiculously early to be having a harvest holiday, as they were still working, but Canada was already predominantly urban, and the government didn't want to have yet another day off work too close to Nov. 11 and Christmas. One politician noted that "the farmers' own holiday has been stolen by the towns to give them a long weekend when the weather was better."

Thanksgiving dinner at the Johnsons
Thanksgiving dinner at the Johnsons.

Katherine Martinko

But for many, like our family, it's one of the loveliest days of the year. We actually have two Thanksgiving dinners. Pre-pandemic, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving Monday, we would go up north to join the Johnson family who lives year-round on the lake where we have a cabin. Their daughter Katherine Martinko is a writer and senior editor for TreeHugger. She loves this dinner too, writing in TreeHugger about the local turkey and other foods:

"It's a meal that I look forward to every year. It’s comforting and satisfying to eat a meal that is tied to the historic local food production system that is often forgotten in this era of food-importation, and yet is one of the reasons why early immigrants to North America were able to settle here. The way we eat at Thanksgiving should be an inspiration for the rest of the year – a reminder that we are surrounded by local, seasonal bounty that's worth seeking out and eating on a regular basis."

Her family is large and incredibly musical; the first time they sang grace before the meal I almost cried it was so beautiful. It was also a joy to meet someone like Katherine on this little lake in the middle of nowhere and to watch her become one of Treehugger's most popular writers.

The Monday night dinner used to be celebrated with my wife Kelly’s mom; she passed away a few years ago and now my daughter has picked up the turkey baster. It's loud and fun and not very serious and certainly not very musical, but it's a wonderful new tradition that I'm looking forward to this year again.

Canadian Thanksgiving is not as exciting as American Thanksgiving—there are no massive parades, no big bargains to chase, it's not the busiest day of the year in the airports. Just food, friends, and family.

I wouldn't have it any other way.