What is Thanksgiving?

If you’re new to Canada, you likely are familiar with international holidays like Christmas and New Years’ Eve but are less acquainted with Canadian holidays like Thanksgiving or Boxing Day. Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to connect with new friends and neighbors or start some new Canadian traditions of your own. To start, you should understand the origin of the celebration.

Canadian Thanksgiving occurs about a month and a half earlier than American Thanksgiving, and always falls on the second Monday of October. It has been celebrated annually since November 6, 1879, but wasn’t fixed to the second Monday of October until 1957. Unlike the American holiday, the Canadian origins are a little harder to pinpoint.

The day actually traces back to before European settlement, with natives hosting a day of thanksgiving for surviving winter in the spring that was marked by feasting, dance, prayer, and more. The first official Canadian Thanksgiving is largely recognized to have taken place in 1578 when English explorer Martin Frobisher took communion and gave thanks near Frobisher Bay in what is today known as Nunavut. The crew on his ship ate biscuits, mushy peas, and salted beef and thanked God for their safe arrival in Newfoundland. This is what the modern holiday is based on and traces back to.

In 1606, 48 years after this day, Samuel de Champlain in New France hosted large feasts between the French settlers and the local Mi'kmaq people. The natives introduced the French to cranberries, which were high in Vitamin C and helped stave off scurvy. These feasts were hosted every several weeks to help stave off another epidemic of scurvy and better nutrition was recommended to keep settlers healthy.

Thanksgiving Today

The holiday today is largely influenced by the American holiday, with turkey, squash, pumpkin and other traditional Thanksgiving foods having been introduced to Halifax citizens in the 1750s. The meal itself differs depending on the province and area where you observe Thanksgiving as well. While Americans from California to New York prepare turkey as the centerpiece for their meal, Canadians in Newfoundland make Jiggs’ Dinner, a boiled meat dish that is paired with split-pea pudding. Canadians in Ontario serve small pastry shells filled with a sticky, syrup called Butter Tart instead of pumpkin pie, and seasonal breads, drinks, and vegetables are selected and prepared in a local fashion across the country.

Also unlike American Thanksgiving, Canadian Thanksgiving is not actually a national holiday. It is statutory throughout most of Canada but is optional in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. In these areas, families tend to celebrate the weekend before Thanksgiving since employers aren’t required to pay their employees for the holiday off. People may also tune in to the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest Thanksgiving Day Parade, a German Beerfest themed celebration on Thanksgiving with 120 floats and tons of costumed characters and festivities on Monday while they spend time and prepare the meal.

In general, Thanksgiving in Canada is a fun, festive holiday to mark the end of harvest and the beginning of fall. Families and friends tend to get together for a large meal and many have the day off work, but it isn’t as formal a holiday as Christmas. People generally don’t travel very far to celebrate since they have to be back at work the day after. Since the weather is just starting to cool off, many will also take this opportunity to take a long walk or hike outside and enjoy the leaves just beginning to change.

Whether you are new to the country this year or have been in the country for a while, Thanksgiving may be a good opportunity to connect with your friends and break up the isolation of the Pandemic! Even if you just get together for a walk outside, you’ll be taking part in a much-loved Canadian tradition.