Culture | Thanks, but no thanks

A look into the cultural differences between Canadian and American Thanksgiving

The thought of Thanksgiving conjures up several images for Canadian and Americans alike: warm pumpkin pie served under a melting portion of spiced whipped cream, meandering fall hikes, delicious turkey smothered in cranberries and gravy, the first, second, and third bite into a crisp apple, one last glorious weekend squeezed out of cottage season, crunchy leaves under your feet, wool socks and plaid flannels, warm apple cider served with cinnamon, and reunions with old friends, family members, and long lost pets.

The holiday’s history in these two countries however, is rather divergent. As the all-American story goes, passengers aboard the teh ship the Mayflower landed in the New World in the year 1620. From the onset of the first brutal winter, many of the colonists suffered from the harsh weather, scurvy, and other diseases. Half of the Mayflower’s passengers did not live to see their first New England spring. In March of that year, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, aided the struggling settlers in cultivating corn, extracting sap, catching fish, and avoiding poisonous plants. A celebratory feast was organized after the first successful corn harvest – what is now known as America’s first “Thanksgiving.”

The holiday fare, however, was far from what we serve today. Traditional Native American methods were used to prepare the feast, and the absence of ovens and sugar meant no pies, cakes, or other desserts – a paramount aspect of the modern day holiday. Over the next couple of centuries, various days of thanksgiving were held at different times throughout the year across different states, but the tradition remained largely unrecognized in the South. That was, until, in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln scheduled Thanksgiving as the final thursday in November. It remained there until 1939, when Roosevelt moved the holiday ahead one week in an attempt to encourage retail sales during the Great Depression. “Franksgiving,” as it was known, was met with significant opposition and the holiday was moved back to the fourth thursday in November in 1941.

Of course, this glossed-over American tale of the wholesome origins of Thanksgiving is an inaccurate depiction of the exploitative relations between the colonists and the Native Americans. There are countless examples of brutal and bloody conflicts between the two parties over land, the organized assimilation of Native peoples into American culture, the blatant squandering of Native American resources by colonists, the pillaging of Native American villages in the name of “Manifest Destiny,” and the intentional spread of disease as a tool of warfare against Native Americans. These are just a few instances of the many disturbing historical interactions between Aboriginal populations and European settlers. This truth hardly aligns with the tale of America’s hearty good nature that is painted for bright-eyed American schoolboys and girls in thanksgiving pageants all across the country.

Controversy aside, Thanksgiving has modernized and is continually celebrated each year. The holiday has now become synonymous with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Also, unlike christmas, thanksgiving has become a holiday that spans religions as well as cultures. As such, it highlights the importance of community and benevolence, which result in the popularity of various volunteering campaigns and food drives in the modern application of the tradition.

Although the holiday is celebrated in both Canada and America with similar harvest fare, there are some stark differences of tradition between the two countries. In America, parades are an extremely popular tradition, as the Macy’s  Thanksgiving Day Parade attracts two or three million people every year. The day after Thanksgiving, known as black friday, marks the joyous occasion of unbridled consumerism as the Christmas shopping season is kicked off prematurely. The consumerism unleashed on black friday is so rampant, that there have been causalities as a result of trampling by stampedes of crazed consumers – all in the name of giving thanks, of course.

Such a tradition has shrouded the goodness of American Thanksgiving in a dark cloud of mass consumption. On a lighter note, a tradition also unique to American Thanksgiving is the pardoning of turkeys. In charge of such a pressing duty is the President himself, who chooses one or two turkeys each year to be pardoned from slaughter and sent to a farm for “retirement.” Finally, perhaps most synonymous with the concept of American Thanksgiving, as well as our perception of the American identity in general (besides apple pie), are good ol’ football games at college and professional levels, scheduled on the day of Thanksgiving.

The Canadian version of Thanksgiving falls on the second Monday of October and is, like many Canadian things, less conspicuous. Considered adoringly by many as “Christmas minus consumerism and dysfunctional extended family,” Canadian Thanksgiving is often seen as a time to simply relax and eat good food. There is no Black Friday, no presidential pardoning of turkeys, no overblown parades, and no good ol’ American football. Canadian Thanksgiving is more of a subtle feeling, like long drives home on tree-lined roads listening to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” It’s the feeling of home that, as we progress in our studies at McGill and lives in Montreal, becomes harder and harder to place. With each passing year and each passing Thanksgiving, the feeling of home begins to slip through our fingertips. People change and disappoint us, high school sweethearts break up, we lose touch with old friends, buildings are torn down, dogs grow old and pass on, and our parents move away.

Thanksgiving then, is a chance to reconnect with your roots. To salvage and indulge in any remaining sense of home you can conjure up within a three-day long weekend. It’s a sad and hollow testament to what you have left behind and will never gain back, but a hopeful and warm reminder of what you could create for yourself in the future. So, as you scarf down your leftover turkey sandwiches and finish off that last piece of pumpkin pie, remember where you came from, what it made you, but mostly, as the wonderful Dr. Seuss said, just think of all the places that you’ll go.