With the distinctive fragrance of pumpkin spice hanging in the air, many have begun rhapsodizing over the fourth Thursday in November. As a pie baker tasked with the orchestration and execution of hundreds of pies (over 700 last year), Thanksgiving is a holiday I love on a personal level, yet struggle with professionally. Staring down stacks of needy pie plates clamoring for attention, I find myself instead preoccupied, almost giddy, with anticipation of the second Monday in October: Canadian Thanksgiving.
American Thanksgiving conjures images of ginormous turkey legs and cornucopias spilling with grapes, gourds, and multi-colored corn. We envision Pilgrims sporting tall black hats adorned with gold buckles. Synonymous with our holiday are cranberry stains on starched white linen tablecloths and long lines snaking around Best Buy just shy of midnight.
Not so, a little further north.
Retiring to one's favorite recliner or deep sofa to sleep off an excess of tryptophan-laden turkey is not so much the Canadian norm. More traditional might be taking advantage of the mild October weather against a backdrop of vibrant foliage. Canadians are apt to don their sensible down vests and Hudson Bay–inspired scarves for an extended jaunt outdoors. Thanksgiving weekend is quite possibly the last of the pleasant weather in Canada before the onslaught of frigid temps.
Granted, the early years of Canadian Thanksgiving were a little Plymouth Rock–y. In 1578, English explorer Martin Frobisher hosted the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America. Following a dicey journey through the Northwest Passage, Frobisher and his fellow explorers had plenty of reason to be thankful: making it alive. In the years following, folks took their time getting acquainted with the holiday, celebrating it casually and sporadically in the 17th and 18th centuries. But back then, it was more a day of reflection, appreciating the blessings bestowed upon themselves and their country.
Interestingly enough, Thanksgiving wasn't celebrated nationally in Canada until 1879. For a while, Canada attempted a two-for-one approach to the festivities, combining it with Armistice Day. The mash-up of the two holidays was embraced with tepid enthusiasm at best. It wasn't until 1957 that the Governor General of Canada issued a proclamation declaring a "Day of General Thanksgiving" to be observed on the second Monday in October.
Even more curious is that Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated nationally, but can be legislated at the provincial and territorial levels. In Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, Turkey Day is optional. Those who work the holiday are generously compensated; not only do they enjoy monetary overtime, their stay-at-home co-workers often provide a bounty of Thanksgiving leftovers as well. Which begs the question: What's on the Canadian Thanksgiving menu?
Canadians have their eye on our November holiday when they gather around their Thanksgiving dinner tables. Odds are good that a butter-basted, overstuffed turkey will take center stage. In some homes, ham is the preferred protein; in others, tourtière, a Canadian pastry pie filled with meat and potatoes. Yams or mashed potatoes will cozy up to a gravy boat filled to the brim, and vegetables will run the gamut from simple greens to elaborate gratins. Like their neighbors to the south, Canadians plan their Thanksgiving menu with a nod toward leftovers. Dessert generally features a pumpkin pie and possibly a maple-kissed butter tart.
Most surprisingly — and what I consider a stroke of genius — Canadians believe you can enjoy your Thanksgiving meal any day of the three-day weekend, providing a little wiggle room (always a good thing when assembling friends and relations).
Some Thanksgiving traditions are shared across the U.S.–Canadian border. After the last smidgen of pumpkin pie is consumed, many Canadians will be so inclined to watch a little football. The Thanksgiving Day Classic, a double header, is hosted by the Canadian Football League and aired nationwide. A mass exodus from the dinner table with credit cards in hand and a shopping mall programmed on the GPS is, however, rare.
Black Friday shopping is far less popular in Canada. With Thanksgiving falling on a Monday at the tail end of a long weekend — not to mention that Canadians have to return to work the next day — Canada's biggest shopping day mirrors that of the U.K., the day after Christmas (aka Boxing Day). Boxing Day provides the perfect opportunity to return all of those less-than-desired holiday gifts back to the store in late December, freeing up the three-day Canadian Thanksgiving weekend for more important things, like stuffing oneself with butter tarts.
From where I stand, armed with a mountain of pie shells fighting for freezer space, the most fascinating aspect of Canadian Thanksgiving is the casualness of it all. There's plenty of gathering and celebrating, but it is not uncommon for people to stay local. The craziness of travel by air/car/train/bus that we associate with Thanksgiving in States is toned down several notches. This year, with more of my family members situated in Canada than in my neck of the woods, I will be traveling north to ease into the holiday in Toronto.