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What Thanksgiving Says About America

A comparison with Canada's Thanksgiving reveals the national traits embedded in this secular holiday.


For many Canadians, the end of November is a puzzling time of year, because we start hearing from American friends about the stresses of Thanksgiving, which include arduous travels to see quarrelsome relatives. Both the timing and the argumentativeness of Thanksgiving seem baffling. In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October, not the fourth Thursday in November. More importantly, Thanksgiving in Canada is a relaxing, lazy holiday, not the ordeal of overheated consumption and forced family togetherness that seems to be the case for our unfortunate neighbors to the south. Family feuds undoubtedly take place over some Canadian dinner tables, but the stereotypical yelling match with a racist uncle or aunt isn’t a ritual here. 

At first glance, these differences would appear to be superficial. But they actually provide some insight into the very distinct national identities of the two countries.

Thanksgiving in both countries is rooted in ancient European harvest festivals, and in both countries it didn’t properly become a national holiday until the 19th century, when the two fledgling nations strove to create institutions of national unity. The idea of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the United States was the handiwork of one woman, the astonishing novelist, editor, and cultural impresario Sarah Josepha Hale. Starting in the 1840s via her editorial perch at Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most widely read American magazine of the day, Hale launched a relentless campaign to make Thanksgiving, then celebrated in different days in different states, a fixed national holiday. 

Fatefully, the origins of American Thanksgiving were tied up with the very divisions that led to the bloodiest war ever fought on North American soil, for Hale was motivated in no small part by worries about national unity. As slavery continued to fester, cultural mavens like Hale hoped that in creating national holidays, the country could unite in celebration and overcome regional differences. While some Southern states did go along with her proposal, there was also resistance. In the words of historian Diana Karter Appelbaum,  author of Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History, the idea of a national feast celebration was seen as a “Yankee abolitionist holiday.” In 1856, Virginia Governor Joseph Johnson thundered, “This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics’ instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.” The “Christian politics” Johnson disliked was abolitionism.

Within the very DNA of American Thanksgiving is an argument about national identity. Even the food consumed on that holiday contains an implicit message about the origins of the country. As food writer Robert Moss noted in a shrewd essay for Serious Eats, “Thanksgiving was a Yankee holiday, birthed in New England and adorned with that region’s symbols and traditions: pilgrims, turkey, pumpkins, and cranberries.” In 1863, during the very heart of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, at the behest of the redoubtable Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday, thus solidifying its status as the day when a fractious nation tries to unite.

The origins of Canadian Thanksgiving are more nebulous. While earlier folkloric accounts credit the holiday to figures like the foolhardy 16th-century explorer Martin Frobisher, in fact it has its origins in the hegemony of Protestantism in 19th-century Canada. As the historian Peter Stevens argues in the forthcoming book Celebrating Canada, the earliest seeds of what Canadians now celebrate came in 1859, when a Protestant clergyman in Ontario carved out the day as a religious feast. Canada formally became a country in 1867, and even though it had a large Catholic population of both French Canadians and Irish immigrants, Protestantism enjoyed cultural dominance. The holiday became an annual event in the 1870s. 

“Where Canadian Thanksgiving is concerned, the figures who were most responsible for establishing the celebration on an annual basis were Protestant clergymen in Ontario,” Stevens notes in a forthcoming article. “Their interest in the holiday was primarily a response to two great challenges that faced them, as Canadian church leaders, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. Particularly after Confederation, ministers felt a moral and historical obligation to chart Canada’s course.

Canadian Thanksgiving didn’t start shedding its sectarian origins until after the First World War, when it was celebrated in early November and fused with Armistice Day.  

The link with the war gave the holiday a new emotional resonance, as a solemn time for reflecting on the sacrifice of soldiers. Canada had suffered unusually large casualties during the war: about 60,000 deaths, roughly half that of the United States, even though Canada had less than one tenth the U.S.’s population. 

The association between Canadian Thanksgiving and Armistice Day ended in 1931, when Thanksgiving was moved to early October so that veterans could have their own holiday. Still, the decade when Thanksgiving and Armistice Day were one had a lasting effect, setting the tone for a quieter, more reserved Canadian holiday, one not associated with either consumption or political arguments. 

Aside from these historical causes, the very nature of the two nations makes the holidays different. Canada is geographically larger but the population is much more tightly concentrated in a few urban centres. A third of Canada’s population is found in just three cities: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. This means Canadians are much more likely to live near their immediate family and not have to travel great distances to visit relatives. The sheer hassle of holiday travel is surely a factor adding to rising tensions in American Thanksgiving and Christmas (which have the added problem of being absurdly close together). 

Finally, we can’t discount differences in national temper. As former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell noted on Twitter, Canadians “have better manners—don’t argue with our mouths full!” But perhaps another way to look at it is that, in the United States, national disputes are argued out, while in Canada they are are left to fester as different groups refuse to talk to each other except in passive-aggressive sullenness. Despite the transformations of World War I, Canadian Thanksgiving never really completely lost its origins in Protestantism. To this day, Thanksgiving still has a WASPish tone in Canada and is less likely to be celebrated by religious and ethnic minorities. In the United States, Thanksgiving is a time for a divided nation to argue, in Canada for a divided nation to avoid fighting.