When I was living in Canada, I was invited to celebrate the Canadian Thanksgiving with my landlord and his family. Unlike Thanksgiving in the United States, Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving in October. The weather is still warm enough to enjoy being outside. For Canadians, Thanksgiving is a day for celebrating the good things in one’s life. They enjoy a festive holiday meal shared with family, and a chance to enjoy the beauty of fall before winter hits. Just as Victoria Day in the spring is the time to open up their summer cottages for the year, Thanksgiving is the time to enjoy those summer homes one last time before shutting them down for the winter.
The Canadian Thanksgiving holiday has nothing to do with the Pilgrims.
Canadians attribute their Thanksgiving celebrations to a number of different sources. Long before Europeans arrived, the prominent indigenous peoples living in the lands that became Canada, held celebrations in the fall. These celebrations by the First Nations people were to give thanks for the bountiful game and harvests that they needed to survive the long winters. Much like Thanksgiving in the United States, the very beginnings were taken from this fall harvest feast.
There are at least two acknowledged “Pioneers” of Canadian Thanksgiving.
Two notable explorers, Martin Frobisher and Samuel de Champlaign, are credited for the first Thanksgiving celebrations by Europeans settlers. Frosbisher, an English explorer and privateer, lead multiple expeditions to North America seeking a Northwest passage to Asia. Arriving in the summer of 1578 after a tumultuous third voyage across the Atlantic to the New World, he and his crew gave thanks for their safe arrival at Frobisher Bay (present day Nunavut) by sharing communion, Their celebratory feast consisted of salted beef, biscuits, and mushy peas, a far cry from the Thanksgiving meals enjoyed today.
Champlaign was an important French explorer who made as many as 29 voyages to North America. He is responsible for founding multiple North American settlements, including Quebec City, Quebec. In 1604, he and the French fur trader, Pierre Dugua de Mons, established a settlement on the Island of Île Ste.-Croix, but their first winter was a disaster. Trapped on the island by ice, they ran out of food and firewood. In addition, scurvy ravaged the community. That winter, almost half of the 100 settlers died.
The small community only survived because of help from the Mi’kmaq. They were a local first Nations Tribe, who returned to the island in March, bringing much needed food and other goods. Champlaign and de Mons relocated the settlement off the Island to Port Royal (modern day Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia). The Mi’Kmaq taught the French community vital skills to survive the hard Canadian winters,including teaching them how to go ice fishing. One of the most important foods they introduced the French to were cranberries. Cranberries are high in vitamin C, which prevents scurvy.
In 1606, the French community founded the Ordre de Bon Temps (Order of Good Cheer) as a means for fighting scurvy. According to the medical knowledge at the time, scurvy was treated with good food and entertainment. The Order offered the community festival meals, which happened to include cranberry dishes, every few weeks to fight scurvy. These celebrations also included the first European play in North America and firing of muskets.
Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving differently from people in the United States.
Canadians, for one thing, are less likely to travel than their southern neighbors for Thanksgiving. They are more likely to celebrate Thanksgiving on any of the days of the three day weekend. They do not necessarily just celebrate on the official Thanksgiving day. For another thing, Thanksgiving is associated with the end of summer rather than the beginning of the Christmas holiday shopping season. Instead of spending the holiday weekend shopping Black Friday sales, outdoor activities such as hiking and viewing the fall colors are popular.
While Canadians often enjoy similar dishes to the ones served in the United States on Thanksgiving, such as turkey and pumpkin pie, there are regional variations. In Newfoundland, for example, many families serve Jiggs Dinner–a dish that is sometimes also called boiled dinner or cooked dinner. Jiggs Dinner consists of either corned beef or salted beef cooked with cabbage, turnips, carrots, potatoes, and/or turnip greens.
In Brittish Columbia, instead of pumpkin pie they often enjoy Nanaimo Bars. These bars are a no-bake treat that have a coconut crumb wafer as the base, a layer of custard flavored buttercream in the middle, and are topped with chocolate ganache. In Ontario, butter tarts are a popular alternative. These rich pastries often have raisins or pecans mixed into the creamy, buttery tart filling. I can personally attest to how delicious these are; one of the many things I miss from Ontario are good butter tarts!
I will be thinking of my Canadian friends this weekend.
And I wish everyone who is celebrating this weekend a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend. I love fall, and I find myself grateful for many things as the leaves change color and the air turns crisper. Among them, I’m particularly thankful for the welcome and friendship I found while living in Canada.