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Thanksgiving in Canada

Updated on November 2, 2014
Martin Frobisher
Martin Frobisher | Source
Edward VII on his wedding day
Edward VII on his wedding day | Source
The siege of Leiden
The siege of Leiden | Source

Thanksgiving in Canada

Thanksgiving is less important in Canada than in the United States. In general it is a harvest festival but it comes to both countries from England where they gave thanks to God for getting them through every calamity. They gave thanks after floods, epidemics, famines and even the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. November 5th is now Guy Fawkes Day for which they hold fireworks and bonfires. For this reason the fall holiday is taken more seriously in English Canada than French, when it is considered a good occasion for a three day vacation, and less for a family get together over a turkey.

Canadians are thankful for different things then people in the US. They like to trace the origins of the holiday to 1578, when Martin Frobisher came over from England. He had 15 ships at the start of his expedition. He set off to find a Northwest Passage and instead had a very cold and miserable experience. The ships were scattered by freak storms and he lost one of them. When he got his ships together at Frobisher Bay their minister gave thanks for their deliverance. Then he went back to England with what he thought was gold and found it was iron pyrite. It was used to pave roads and he considered the mission a failure.

Samuel de Champlain held a feast of thanks for arriving in the New World in 1604, even though he was in Florida. But in Canada in 1608 he described the Great Lakes. He shared harvest feasts with Montagnais, Innue, Algonquin and Huron people. He was not a noble and therefore could not be called a governor but served as one.

The Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, feasted for 3 days with the Wampanoag people in 1621. However they were said to have been influenced in their celebration of the day by the Dutch celebration of the unsuccessful attempted siege of Leiden in 1574. They had been staying in the Netherlands for some years before coming to Massachusetts.

In 1763, prior to the Revolution, England gave a thanksgiving feast for obtaining New France in the thirty Years War.

All these explain in part the origins of Thanksgiving in the New World. But the most important influence in Canada was probably from the United States. After the Revolution people who had favored the British cause fled to Canada in great numbers and brought Thanksgiving with them. Canada was the favorite refuge of all the political refugees from the United States thereafter, from slaves prior to the Civil War, to those from both sides escaping during and after the conflict. They brought Thanksgiving with them.

The two countries were thankful for very different things however. To start with the holiday was celebrated on two separate days, May 21 and June 18th in upper and lower Canada. Both areas however were thankful and had celebrations for the end of war with Napoleon and England in 1816. Again they celebrated in 1840 with the Act of Unification in which the rebellion of those in lower Canada was put down. On April, 15th 1872 they celebrated a thanksgiving holiday nationally for the recovery of the future Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria from illness. They held a thanksgiving for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Later there was a thanksgiving for the coronation of Edward as the new King.

Finally it was declared a national holiday in Canada in1879. It had been a national holiday in the United States since 1863 in the States where Lincoln declared November 26th a day of remembrance after Gettysburg. After it was made a National Holiday in Canada, it was celebrated every year on the second Monday in October.

The Parliament of Canada said it was thanks to God for a good harvest and a successful year. Later it became a celebration of the Canadian Armistice of World War I. Then the two were declared separate holidays by the government. Armistice Day was made the 11th of November. In Canada Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October as declared by the Parliament on Canada in 1957, and is a three day weekend. It is earlier than in the US but so is the Canadian harvest. In the US this corresponds to Columbus day, which is sometimes called Indigenous Peoples Day. The U.S. Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving is not a state holiday in the east provinces of Prince Edward Island, Labrador, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Columbus Day is not an official holiday in Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon or South Dakota. Hawaii celebrates the Polynesian discoverers of Hawaii. South Dakota celebrates Native American Day.

There are small differences in the holiday. The celebration in Canada which is officially on a Monday, lasts the weekend before, rather than a single day as in the U.S. Turkey, the quintessential Thanksgiving dish in both countries, was an expensive dish at one time. What we consider a small bird cost a day wages. It was symbol of the bounty of the new world.

During this time in Canada, a large meal with the family is served on a Sunday or Monday. Foods are the same in both countries. The meal is supposed to be indigenous North American cuisine including turkey with cranberry sauce, squash, corn, potatoes, apple cider and pumpkin pie. The greens can be Brussels sprouts in Canada. In the States it is more usual to serve green beans or even collard greens.

Small differences in cuisine exist. Canadians do not eat corn bread, marshmallows in sweet potato casseroles, or oysters in turkey stuffing ever. They do eat rice or bread crumbs in their stuffing, but never cornmeal. There are regional differences in what is served in certain areas of the United States.

Finally Canadians do not have a discount shopping day after Thanksgiving. They are not immune from the urge to compete for discounts and have their big shopping day after Christmas on the 26th of December call Boxing Day. This was originally the date that the British put donations for the poor in a box in the church and also the day that tradesmen and servants were given their bonus.

Both in Canada and the United States important football matches are broadcast. The family can watch the Canadian Thanksgiving Day Classic which is a double header in the Canadian Football League.

So Thanksgiving in Canada has a different origin. It gives thanks for a harvest and has nothing to do with Indigenous people. However in form it is very much like a traditional Thanksgiving because it is British in form and those in the United States would find themselves very much at home.


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