Three ways Canadian Thanksgiving differs from American Thanksgiving

Pumpkins at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market | Facebook photo.

Pumpkins at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market | Facebook photo.

If you’re American and you love a good holiday dinner, the second weekend in October is prime time to head up to Canada. That’s because Thanksgiving celebrations are in full swing here, so you can enjoy turkey and stuffing not once, but twice–six weeks before American Thanksgiving. Score!

So what’s the difference between American and Canadian Thanksgiving? When I taught English in Japan years ago, my students were surprised to hear that there was a difference at all–but indeed, there is.

I freely admit that most of what I know about the U.S. celebration comes from American television and movies. However, I’ve celebrated many a Thanksgiving in Vancouver and can tell you how we do it based on a very scientific survey of People I Know.

Here are three basic differences.

Thanksgiving dinner | Marcus Quigmire, Wikimedia Commons photo.

Thanksgiving dinner | Marcus Quigmire, Wikimedia Commons photo.

Canadian Thanksgiving is in October, not November–and it’s not about pilgrims

That’s right: Canadian Thanksgiving falls on the second Monday in October—October 13 this year—the same day as American Columbus Day. American Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday in November.

Why is that? Probably because Canada is farther north and the harvest comes earlier, so we celebrate it earlier.

In Feasting and Fasting: Canada’s Heritage Celebrations (Dundurn), Dorothy Duncan writes that Canadians had many different Thanksgiving celebrations before the official date was chosen by Parliament in 1957. Before any newcomers came to the land, the First Nations celebrated their crops. After that, thanksgiving celebrations were held to mark everything from explorer Martin Frobisher’s successful crossing of the Northwest Passage in 1578 to war victories to the recovery of the Price of Wales (later King Edward VII) from illness in 1872.

But as far as I know, the Canadian history of Thanksgiving has nothing to do with pilgrims and the Mayflower as does American Thanksgiving. Both holidays, however, are generally seen as an opportunity to give thanks for what’s good in our lives, celebrate nature’s bounty, and enjoy a big meal with family and friends.

While the Canadian holiday officially falls on Monday, celebrations can take place at any time over the weekend. The big meal is just as likely to happen on Sunday as it is on Monday.

The annual Turkey Sale at Whistler Blackcomb | Facebook photo.

The annual Turkey Sale at Whistler Blackcomb | Facebook photo.

Canadian Thanksgiving is not as strongly associated with shopping

In America, Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) is legendary: American news reports show how some shoppers go straight from their Thanksgiving celebrations to the mall the moment it opens.

That doesn’t happen for Canadian Thanksgiving. The holiday Monday means it’s a long weekend for many people, but shopping isn’t an essential part of it. Many stores operate on more limited hours on Thanksgiving Sunday and Monday.

Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of sales and promotions that happen on Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. (Whistler Blackcomb’s Turkey Sale, which offers deals on ski and snowboard equipment, is a good example.)

But up here, our biggest shopping day of the year is Boxing Day—December 26, the day after Christmas. That’s when you’ll see line-ups outside electronic stores.

Kitsilano Beach in early October | Carolyn Ali photo.

Kitsilano Beach in early October | Carolyn Ali photo.

Canadian Thanksgiving is not as big a deal as American Thanksgiving

From what I can tell, Thanksgiving seems to be almost as significant a holiday as Christmas in the U.S. People fly across the country to visit family, and according to U.S. Bureau of Transport statistics, the number of long-distance trips increases by 54 percent over the six-day Thanksgiving period, while that increase is just 23 percent over the Christmas/New Year period.

Movies like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles add to the perception that people move mountains to celebrate with extended family over American Thanksgiving.

In Canada, of course, people also travel to be with loved ones over the Thanksgiving weekend. However, my perception is that fewer Canadians take time off work for long-distance travel. We stick closer to home on Thanksgiving than we do at the end of December—that’s when more people take extended time off for family visits.

Of course, Vancouverites love to make the most of a long weekend. Since the weather is often sunny and crisp, we go hiking, visit the farmers market, stroll along Kitsilano Beach, or meet for dim sum.

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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35 Responses to Three ways Canadian Thanksgiving differs from American Thanksgiving

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  2. Giselle

    Thanksgiving means going to a couple of farmers’ markets and stocking up with local produce. Dropping off a package for the local food bank. Taking a moment to realize how blessed I am and remembering my parents. Then it’s getting together with friends for all the delicious potluck feasts. Time to get outdoors and take in the colours. Bring out the camera and capture memories.

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  4. R A Williams

    I was born in the USA, grew up in Canada and lived there for 22 years, but live in the United States now.

    The Canadian Thanksgiving meals I attended, or helped prepare, tended to emphasize the culture of the person or family preparing them. They would often include foods that were popular locally, although pumpkin pie was the customary dessert.

    In Canada, turkey was the most popular main course, but it wasn’t always turkey. Ham, or a roast chicken, were also acceptable. At times, there was more than one dessert, and the other dessert wasn’t necessarily pie. It wasn’t unusual to see Nanaimo squares, blueberry cobbler, cheesecake, or other treats depending on where you were from. We had lots of Slavic side dishes: pickled beets, pickled eggs, and other sour treats.

    In Canada, it is quite normal for people to entertain, or be entertained by, people who weren’t relatives. Friends getting together to have a nice dinner party is quite normal. The host invites everyone, people who can come say whether or not they’re going to be there, and then the guests arrive on time and eat. In the USA, people tend to not want to eat this particular meal with anyone who isn’t a relative. They might invite someone who’s a friend and who doesn’t have friends or relatives in town, but no self-respecting family would consider going to a non-relative’s place to eat. People who “have nowhere to go” or “have no family” are looked down on and treated like they’re somehow a charity case. It is therefore extremely difficult for a person with no relatives in town to host a Thanksgiving dinner. I have difficulty getting Americans to reliably RSVP for and attend my dinner parties, but Thanksgiving is a whole new level of disrespect and poor treatment by guests. People don’t RSVP for the meal, they arrive several hours late, and when they do arrive they frequently won’t eat, although they ask for their meal in “to go” bags as though the person cooking and hosting was some kind of free take-out restaurant.

    So far, the American Thanksgiving meals I’ve had, while tasty, have been more predictable. I have yet to see anyone serve a main course that wasn’t turkey, ham, or a Vegan tofu turkey (although I hear it happens sometimes). There are two basic styles of cooking: a Southern style with pecan or sweet potato pie, where the side dishes include collard greens, and a Northern style with pumpkin pie, where the side dishes include a kind of green been casserole that is also eaten in parts of Canada.

    Overall, I’ve taken to traveling and adventuring on American holidays. I’m tired of being treated poorly in my own house, and I find that when I travel, people are glad to see me. I use the holiday to fly or drive to a city with a national park that I haven’t been to, and go adventuring the day after (which is a Friday). Since most people are with relatives on Thanksgiving, I can generally get a cheap plane ticket if I fly out that day. The planes and airports are not crowded and the roads are not heavy with traffic, because everyone is busy eating. The day after Thanksgiving, I have the park or museum almost to myself because everyone is out at Black Friday sales breaking their necks to go into debt for some fashionable electronic gadget. The next day, or else the Sunday afterwards, I head home after having enjoyed a nice quiet vacation. This year, I’m hoping to go to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

    • Joe

      Maybe if you were a bit more positive people would either invite you, or come to your dinner. Yes, in the Sates, Thnksgiving is seen as a family holiday, but the overall theme to the holiday is to celebrate and share. Local schools often have events and dinners to include everyone in the community. I can’t think of anyone I know that hasn’t at one time shared Thanksgivimg with someone or have been included in another families or friend’s Thanksgiving.

      Perhaps traveling alone to a cave is best suited for you. Plenty of room to expand your view in mammoth cave

    • Lisa M

      I’m a Canadian who has been living in the States for 26 years, and I have to agree…American Thanksgiving mostly seems to exclude people who aren’t family. And it’s not even just my own experience that I draw upon. I’ve seen friends who were dating people, and they were not issued invitations to Thanksgiving because “they’re not family.”

      It’s an attitude that seems to be at odds with the holiday itself. But then again, so is Black Friday

      Which is why, 26 years later, I still prefer to celebrate Thanksgiving in October. I’ll buy a couple of turkeys in November, because that’s when they go on sale, but they go in the freezer for another time. I enjoy a low key October Thanksgiving with friends (often including other expats) and mostly non-traditional but very festive foods – and then in November, I spend that day working on Christmas/Solstice projects and preparations (which does NOT include shopping on Black Friday). Despite it being quite out-of-the-norm…I really love my way of celebrating the two days – and I’ve become fiercely protective of them.

    • Sue

      In response to R.A. Williams’s comment, I have lived in the United States all my life, and we often have people who are not relatives join us for Thanksgiving dinner. My guests always show up if they say they are going to be there, and they are not late unless they had problems on the road, such as a snowstorm.

      My guests are delighted if I offer them some leftovers, but they don’t expect them.

      When saying grace before the meal, we take turns around the table in declaring what we are thankful for.

      I don’t go near a mall or shopping center between Thanksgiving and Christmas–too many people. Those who trample over others just to get a good deal on a child’s toy really need to get a life. I don’t understand people who wait in line on “Black Friday” hours before a store even opens.

      The bottom line is that both the American and Canadian Thanksgiving celebrations are based in being thankful for all the blessings God has graced us with, and enjoying a good meal with friends and family.

    • Henry Kollofer

      I find this to be completely inaccurate, judgmental and offensive. I realize this is your opinion. So I would just like to make it perfectly clear that your opinion could not be any more different than my opinion.

      I hope you find an acceptable Thanksgiving dinner with people who will not judge you because you are not family. Either in Canada or the United States.

  5. aunty c

    I think the Thanksgiving holidays is about the enjoyment of bright colours. It is about the seasons changing. It is when Autumn meets Fall. I like when family and friends sit down and laugh about the current events. It is not just about turkey dinner and fat stomachs. It is truly having a thought about what is important in this time and place. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.!

  6. Grandma Dee

    Seems that how Thanksgiving is celebrated here in the USA is as individual as the group celebrating it. I certainly hope that anyone coming to join in the fun wouldn’t feel like a charity case! This idea makes me feel sad for the original poster who felt that way, seems you could have had better friends. For us, (us being our family, the only ones I feel qualified to speak for) our friends ARE family by choice. When we learn that a friend is out of luck for dinner plans, we let them know that they are welcomed and not just on Thanksgiving but anytime.

    We never eat that commercially concocted green bean and canned fried onion dish. (ewe) We do enjoy a variety of fresh vegetables with our turkey. It’s about the harvest, remember? Sometimes we supplement with a ham or roast beef on the side, maybe even a big batch of clam chowdah. (Yes I’m a New Englander). Desserts do feature a pumpkin pie as well, (always a pumpkin pie) as well as one, two or three other kids of pie, depending on how big a crowd we have on any given year. Apple pie or apple crisp run a close second favorite, blueberry pie is also in the arena. Often a cream pie or cheesecake makes it’s way to the dessert table as well as assorted cakes and fruit breads.

    We don’t overlook our reason for this celebration being the harvest shared by the original Americans, ensuring their survival. Remember what a blessing and outright gift of love that was. Black Friday is a more recent phenomenon generated by alluring sales tactics. My Christmas shopping is finished by Thanksgiving Day so I can’t say anything about that except that I know it’s an experience I wouldn’t care to partake in. In my house the Friday after Thanksgiving is just a laid back day of enjoying family and friends and easy leftover meals.

  7. Darcy4921

    I’ve only ever attended American Thanksgiving dinners, because, well… I’m American and have never been to Canada.
    I have Canadian friends and am just learning about how they celebrate their Thanksgiving.
    In our family, we would rather have our friends over for dinner- our family is a bit of a freak show, but we still love them. When we know someone is home alone for the holiday, they are always welcomed to our home, we are a “the more the merrier” type family.
    Our usual Thanksgiving day starts with a good breakfast, then all the dinner is prepped and started and then the last minute house work is completed. As guests arrive (family and friends) we talk, gossip, watch football and then we eat, sometimes we go on walks after dessert. I look forward all year to my aunts turkey, not because it’s soooo good, but because every year something goes wrong… Like the time she accidentally broiled the turkey, or the year she didn’t have toothpicks to hold the orange slices on the turkey while it baked- so she used nails (I kid you NOT!) hahaha!
    These moments are priceless and for me, Thanksgiving is taking a day to really think about what you are thankful for, a time to reflect on the Native Americans helping the Pilgrims survive and enjoying time with loved ones: friend and family (no matter how crazy they be).
    I do not shop on Friday after Thanksgiving, and I am sickened that stores such as Macy’s, Walmart, etc… are now opening on Thanksgiving night. On Friday, I take the day to spend with my family and decorate for Christmas.

  8. Julia

    My name is Julia, I’m from Austria and at the moment I am staying in Vancouver as I am travelling the world together with my boyfriend. Since I am here I always wanted to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving. That’s why I am looking for a canadian family who is willing to host my boyfriend and me during dinner. We would like to get to know all the typical dishes, would like to help with preparing them and would be happy if we could also surprise you with an Austrian dish. Please contact me if you want to spend Thanksgiving with an Austrian/German Couple ;-)

    • patti

      Hi Julia from Austria:
      I wish I was in Vancouver and could host your and your friend. I hope a friendly Canadian family sees this and you get your invite.
      Happy Thanksgiving from Kitchener Ontario!! :)

      • patti

        I’m born and raised Canadian and although my family celebrates Thanksgiving every year it has never had anything to do with the Mayflower or the Pilgrams.

        Colonisation isn’t something to be proud of or celebrate, so…
        we celebrate only from the frame of what we are Thankful for.

        It’s a time to give thanks to Mother Earth and Mother Nature for their bounty of amazing foods and beautiful colours with the leaves turning in the fall, my favourite time of year.

        It’s also a time to give thanks for our health, our families and all the blessings we have in Canada (and there are many).

        We eat local grown and raised foods, usually turkey or chicken but this year I did a manage of meats in a crock pot, chicken, pork chops and sausages, dee-lish.

        We almost always have squash, red cabbage and potatoes. I did a twist on the potatoes this year and roasted them instead of doing mashed and capped it with a silky tasty gravy.

        We then topped it all off with a scrumptious apple crisp (made with local Macs of course),some frozen vanilla yoghurt and tea.

        If was lovely. Happy Thanksgiving to all!!!

    • norma

      Wish you were in oOntario you could have came Saturday to a big redneck Ontario celebration of Thanksgiving..In a trailer park!!! We have all the traditional fixings turkey ham, salmon caught in the lake, squash, turnip carrots and parsnips mashed, potatoes, brown rice, pumpkin pie, chocolate cake make with pumpkin, cranberries of course and any thing else you happen to think of bringing.
      we are about 120people mixture friends family and others from the trailer park, the more the merrier just bring your own bottle.and dish.
      depfry one turkey at least. our friend gives blessing , and the feasting begins, bigger than Christmas for us.

  9. David Norton

    I think you’re quite wrong in your argument that for Canadians (in some parts of Ontario) that Thanksgiving is ‘not’ about the pilgrims/Mayflower. Many Ontario Canadians ancestors were Americans who fled the American Revolution and brought with them their own traditions of Thanksgiving and interpretations of it stemming from the pilgrims and the Mayflower landing at Plymouth. I as a Canadian have never heard the Frobisher connection to Thanksgiving…we always celebrated in relation to the pilgrims/Mayflower and so did everyone I knew from friends, acquaintances and other family members. I think they’re are many Canadians who want to differentiate themselves from Americans for whatever reasons…but those of us with ancestry of the United Empire Loyalists Americans who came to areas of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia hold within our generational linkage an “Americanism” of such a holiday as Thanksgiving. As Canadians that is a part of us that is now part of Canadian Thanksgiving minus the Frobisher interpretation.

    • J

      Interestingly enough, my family were also Loyalists who fled America and landed in Ontario but we do NOT celebrate the pilgrims or American style Thanksgiving. Ours seems to be closer to the Canadian tradition about celebrating the harvest and change of seasons. I can’t think of anyone in my family that links it with the pilgrims or anything American. It’s amazing to see the varied traditions even within the same cultural background of the Loyalists.

  10. Joel canuck

    Did you know? Although history says in 1578 The first thanksgiving was celebrated. It wasn’t a serious holiday in Canada until american loyalist brought the custom up north during the war of 1812. The first american thanksgiving was celebrated in Plymouth , MA in October 1621. Pilgrims celebrated the first harvest with turkey in new world. Despite it being a federal holiday the United states use to celebrate on October as well as canadians did on November there wasn’t a set date for either country. It wasn’t until during the Great Depression in 1939 that president Roosevelt sign into law to set thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November and create Black Friday to help boost the U.S. economy before Christmas. In 1957 Canada signed into law to make thanksgiving on the second Monday of October.

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  12. Pam

    I live in Nova Scotia and Thanksgiving for me, my family and friends is all about sharing good food and focusing on being thankful for what we have. Although there is a strong Loyalist heritage here, I have never known anyone or heard anyone say that Thanksgiving for them had anything to do with Pilgrims or the Mayflower. Our traditional food includes turkey, carrots and turnip mashed together, a dressing/stuffing made with potato, bread cubes, butter, onion, poultry seasoning and summer savory, peas, gravy and, of course, pumpkin pie for dessert. And lots of left overs for the days to come for sandwiches and soup. Usually, we eat our meal on Sunday and then have the Monday holiday to rest and relax and get ready for the rest of the work week. We have in the past included friends, neighbours and strangers and don’t know why anyone wouldn’t given the whole “be thankful” thing. Having a turkey in October takes the “edge” off having to wait for Christmas dinner :) But, we have turkey dinner anytime we feel like cooking one.

  13. Hannah

    This year, for Thanksgiving, I am flying to Georgia to see one of my best friends. We are going to be participating in a spiritual retreat of sorts. We will be reading the bible, praying, meditating, and just THANKING God for all His many blessings. I have never done this before, but I am excited. It is going to be a great four days!!!!!

  14. Brian

    Being from the province of Ontario we have strong United Empire Loyalist ancestry. For anyone not knowing the history of the UEL’s they were Americans who fled the American Revolution and settled in Canada. The Bay of Quinte area in Ontario (Belleville/Prince Edward County) is hugely populated by the descendants of these American United Empire Loyalists who ( due to political loyalty to Britain rather than to the USA )moved by will or were forced (land, homes, plantations, farms) because their property was confiscated by the government. Many died as a result of the aggression they faced or the journey to Canada. However many descendants of these Loyalists celebrate their Thanksgiving in terms of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower because of their intrinsic American heritage. I myself and anyone I know have never heard of the Frobisher version of Thanksgiving. Canadians of all stripes did once celebrate the holiday the same day as Americans but due to our earlier harvest it was changed to October. It was Roosevelt as President who purposely made the American Thanksgiving the last Thursday in October to stimulate the economy of the U.S. during the Depression to get people Christmas shopping. Anyway that being said Canadians need to acknowledge their American roots so richly found in the Bay of Quinte region and understand that Thanksgiving in that part of Canada has strong American roots.

    • Brian

      I meant to say that President Roosevelt made American Thanksgiving the last Thursday in “November” (not October).

    • J

      I’m from the same region as you are and I too have Loyalists roots but I think it really depends on what the particular family finds important. To us, our American and Loyalist roots are there but it isn’t our focus. The people I know don’t really put too much emphasis on their families being Loyalists, it’s just part of their background but not their identity. Different families focus on different traditions.

  15. Katrina

    We celebrate the Mayflower settling in North America. It’s the first time as a Canadian that I hear of a Martin Frobisher…WHO is he??? Anyway I’m from Ontario but live now in Alberta. Nobody I know ever raises a wine glass to Martin Frobisher at dinner. Some Canadians prefer to invent a difference which I find kind of some kind of rabid anti-American headcase thing. Who cares about our differences since we are all NORTH AMERICANS in the NEW WORLD.

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  17. jane

    Living in Montreal, I have come to learn that not many celebrate Thanksgiving here. I think I heard that is true of many in Quebec. Maybe it is a more English holiday that a French one.

  18. Yeah and that why it is th best way to celebrate thanksgiving in a Canadian way.

  19. AmySue

    I’ve enjoyed reading these comments as much as the article itself. I’m from Chicago. Growing up we’d have four generations together in one modest but bountiful home, children at the kids table enjoying grape juice in place of the adults’ wine. The lovely aromas from the kitchen, the raucous laughter, and the sense of familial joy were clear-especially if my uncle was home from the army. Our next generation has come along now, and we’ve all split to different houses in recent years-I often bring a friend or two, and they fit right in with the wackiness, especially now that we’ve traded that grape juice for wine of our own. My hope for the tradition of Thanksgiving is that people take the time to disconnect from consumerism, the Web, and other distractions to do what commenters here have suggested: Sit and actually be with each other, reflect on all we have to be thankful for, and discuss ways to be of service to the world and each other in the coming year.

  20. Lorraine

    Interesting article. Thanks! Just want to point out that all fixed date Canadian holidays were originally observed on Sundays. Government legislated the Monday following as a day off so people could travel home to be with their families. Over time calendar makers have come to describe the Monday as the day the holiday is observed so that’s what we have come to believe. How things adapt!

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  22. Dirk Jefferson

    au contaire:

    Back in 1961, in Orillia, Ontario, our Grade 1 teacher Mrs Maxwell explained the upcoming Thanksgiving Holiday: The *first* and most important detail she mentioned was how the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth and decided to celebrate in gratitude for their survival. She didn’t mention that Plymouth was in another country, because in 1622, they were not separate countries.

    So much for our Canadian Thanksgiving having nothing to do with Pilgrims. I suspect the distancing from Pilgrims was declared after the sixties when anti-US attitudes became fashionable.

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  25. Laurie

    I’m an American, and I have to say that Thanksgiving is my very favorite holiday. I love the mostly non-commercial aspect of it, and being with friends and family. When we can, we try to go to my mom’s place, which is about a 250 mile drive from where we live. When we can, sometimes we travel to my husband’s home state of Minnesota, but we haven’t been able to do that for several years now due to the cost. I am a nurse, so usually every other year it is my holiday to work, and since we live in a place where we have no relatives close by, often I host a Thanksgiving dinner earlier in the week and invite friends from work or church. At those celebrations we usually have about fifteen guests, which is a lot in our little house. But it is noisy and fun, with lots of great food and fellowship. My guests are usually thrilled to come, because it means they get to have two Thanksgivings in one week! I love to cook and Thanksgiving is my favorite meal to plan and prepare. When I know that I will be hosting a Thanksgiving meal, I prepare weeks in advance what my menu will be, and try to do much of the prep ahead of time. I hate Black Friday tradition. I try to do my best to steer clear of the malls on that day. And the merchants are opening their doors earlier and earlier every year, it seems. I just love Thanksgiving!