Two Countries, One Bird: Thanksgiving in North America
Both sides agree: Food is good.
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
Americans tend to think of Thanksgiving as a uniquely American phenomenon. It's a tradition rooted in our founding myths, and something that other countries couldn't hope to understand. For the most part, the evidence bears that assumption out. Only a few other countries around the world celebrate a "Thanksgiving Day," and several of them inherited the idea directly from the American tradition.
There's one exception, though: Canada.
In olden days, Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving to show thanks for whatever awesome thing had happened most recently—like the "strange and miraculous deliverance" of Martin Frobisher’s crew from the perils of Nunavut in 1578, or the Prince of Wales' recovery from illness in 1872.
But today, Canada’s Thanksgiving has evolved to become an American-style family feast, replete with football and libations but perhaps without the same degree of abject gluttony displayed by the former fattest nation on earth (thanks, Mexico).
The American Thanksgiving is, on the face of it, a communal expression of gratitude for the bounty our country continues to enjoy. But that humble purpose is effectively hidden under layers of protein, starch, alcohol, footballs, and family arguments. It’s an ode to gluttony and the ensuing food coma. It's the culmination not of the harvest, but of the preceding year's relative temperance. In other words, it's our chance to pig out without shame.
There are arguments to be made for the superiority of each take on the holiday—most of which have to do with food, football, and hockey—but we’ll refrain from taking sides and merely compare the two. Here are the chief similarities and differences between Canadian and American Thanksgiving.
In the U.S., Thanksgiving has been a federal and public holiday since 1863. While our constitution doesn’t permit the federal government to regulate the operations of private business, federal recognition ensures the closing of all public offices. By proxy, most private institutions close as well.
Canada has celebrated its Thanksgiving as a national holiday, or a “statutory holiday” since 1879, meaning both public and private workers are entitled to take the day off with regular pay. However, in the provinces of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Labrador it's an optional holiday. French-speaking Québécois are less likely to actively celebrate Thanksgiving, and tend to see the holiday as just another day off work—très, très French.
American Thanksgiving is often traced back to that hardscrabble Plymouth luncheon when House Pilgrim invited House Indian to dine on the spoils of a first edible harvest.
But the holiday wasn’t formally recognized until Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday during the peak of the Civil War—forever cursing the date as an airing of intrafamily grievances. The fourth Thursday of every November, our 13th president declared, shall be one of "thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
North of the border, it wasn’t until 1957 that the Canadian Parliament officially recognized the 2nd Monday in October as "a day of general Thanksgiving to almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed." America may have beaten Canada to the establishment of an official date (and by about 100 years), but both countries’ Thanksgiving traditions are framed in family-friendly historical anecdotes and religious humility, all tethered to a reverent sense of "food is good."
Since its humble, war-torn origins, America’s Thanksgiving has grown into a paean to outsized consumption, the ugliest aspect of which is glimpsed in the disgusting pageant of antisocial behavior known as Black Friday. Over the past couple decades, Black Friday has begun to eclipse Thanksgiving itself, taking on Roman proportions of degeneracy and social decline.
But the rampant consumerism of Black Friday is virtually nonexistent in Canada, or really anywhere else in the world. No, Canada’s biggest shopping day is the day after Christmas—Boxing Day, as it’s known—which suggests concentrated Canadian consumerism comes not in the form of dog-eat-dog purchasing power, but in returned goods and wistful disappointment.
The featured dish in both American and Canadian Thanksgiving meals is turkey, thanks in large part to the American Tories who fled to Canada during the revolution and brought a taste for flightless birds with them.
For whatever reason, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, corn, vegetables, pumpkin pie, and (of course) gravy—"the works," as it were—are all common on American and Canadian tables. There are a few differences, such as the Canadian predilection for wheat rolls and rice stuffing, but they are likely more regional or even familial traits than national ones.
Footballs & Floats
Same game, different league. The Canadian Football League always hosts the Thanksgiving Day Classic, which is a nationally televised doubleheader. But unlike the NFL—which hosts three games on Thanksgiving Day, two of which traditionally involve the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys—the CFL has a rotating schedule of participating teams. The rules are a little different, too, but once you've had a few glasses of wine that all fades away.
Up north they also have the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest Parade, part of a Bavarian-themed festival that runs through Canadian Thanksgiving. The parade doesn't have anything to do with football, but it sounds absolutely delightful. Its American counterpart, of course, is the predictably corporate Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which has been running pretty much yearly since 1924.
The Canadian and American Thanksgivings, though occurring on only two days spaced more than a month apart, can be collectively thought of as North America’s Oktoberfest. It’s a glorious celebration of the year’s harvest and the bounty of delectable treats it promises.
The significance of the seasonal harvest may lost on a populace that can buy apples and bananas year-round, and that thinks of winter as a time to enjoy sledding and sitting by the fire rather than a terrifying descent into darkness and deadly cold. But that’s not the point.
If anything, our ascendance above the mortal threat of winter is even greater reason to imbibe, devour, and consume—not merely our autumnal provisions, but also the gifts and treasures that make the holidays the holidays. Cheers!
[Football image: Wikipedia Commons, Keith Allison]