Canadian Thanksgiving is Today (But Most Americans Probably Wouldn’t Know It)

October 10, 2016

Today, the second Monday in October, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving.

(And less than seven weeks until we feast here in the U.S. Are you sweating yet getting ready?)

The most "traditional" Canadian Thanksgiving foods are similar to those served here on the last Thursday in November: a roast turkey at the center of the table, stuffing, gravy, various fall vegetables (and these similarities are partially attributed to the movement of British loyalists, and their traditions, to Canada after the American revolution).

Is this turkey American or Canadian? We may never know. Photo by Bobbi Lin

But the holiday's origins differ: Some say it commemorates the 1578 reunion of English explorer Martin Frobisher and his crew with his fleet of ships, from which he was separated during a summer storm; French settlers arriving with Samuel de Champlain also held feasts of thanks in 1604; others say the harvest festival was borrowed from the American colonies during the 1750s; and Thanksgiving Day was first celebrated as a civic holiday in 1872 to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales from a serious illness. In 1879, it was declared a national holiday, and in 1957 it was established as the second Monday in November.

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Despite the holiday's long history—and its similiarities with the U.S. Thanksgiving—it's still largely unknown in the U.S. As Pete Wells reported in the New York Times, editors at Taste of Home (the American food magazine with the largest circulation), Cooking Light, and Bon Appétit confirmed never covering the holiday. And Ruth Reichl, who edited Gourmet for 10 years, told Wells it was "bad enough having to do Thanksgiving over and over every year": "We never touched a second Thanksgiving!"

And perhaps our general ignorance is a reason that American "reports" on the holiday are often contradictory. Wells wrote, "Dessert will be pie. Everybody’s favorite is pumpkin." But Bridget Shirvell on said, "Pie isn't as much of a must on Canadian Thanksgiving menus" but doughnuts are more likely to make an appearance. (All three Canadian commenters denied ever having a doughnut on Thanksgiving. Food52 readers: We're counting on you to weigh in here!)

(And Americans, if all this talk about Thanksgiving has you in hives, never fear—you can start cooking now.)

So what may be more interesting than the purported accounts of what is eaten on Canadian Thanksgiving is how commenters have responded with insight into how their own families celebrate.

Rowbat in Vancouver wrote on Wells' article that "Thanksgiving in Canada is basically a harvest festival (much more appropriate in early October than a few weeks before Christmas), being thankful for the crops that are 'in the barn' or 'in the cellar.' No national mythology, flags, or marching bands—just an acknowledgement of the seasons and simple gratitude for a kitchen full of food for the winter."

And commenter MGVY reiterated that in "Canada, the principal family day is Christmas. Thanksgiving is a fairly low-key event and does not have the commercial significance that it does in the U.S., where it is the trigger for the Christmas shopping season."

And L Martin in Nanaimo, British Columbia offered a more whimsical explanation:

Our parliament sensibly spread out Octoberfest, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas and New Years to reasonably distribute gastric upset and calories through the fall and early winter. As well, widening the Thanksgiving/Christmas gap on the calendar, takes considerable psychological pressure off the designated turkeys. And please note that yes, it is true, our turkey stuffing is a combo of doughnuts and poutine.

We're not sure we believe L Martin's teasing, but we can all agree that fall offers many reasons to be grateful, whether on the second Monday in October or the last Thursday in November (and, preferably, on both).

If you're looking for a way to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving, Food52's Controller Victoria Maynard, who grew up in Toronto and emphasized how low-key the holiday was in her own family, said that they always had butter tarts.

Okay, Canadians: Tell us! How important is Canadian Thanksgiving to you? And how did you celebrate this year?

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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cookinginvictoria October 30, 2016
As an American expat now living in British Columbia, we make a point to celebrate both Canadian and American Thanksgiving holidays. Most people we know here in Canada do turkey with all of the trimmings (including dressing, mashed potatoes, cranberries, and pie) for the Canadian holiday. I don't know anyone who has doughnuts on their holiday table, but here in Victoria doughnuts are big! We have a few wonderful artisan doughnut bakers. One of them (Yonni's) made amazing pumpkin pie doughnuts this year to celebrate the season. Among locals that I know here, butter tarts do not usually make an appearance until Christmas.

Our family sometimes prepares turkey at Canadian Thanksgiving, but I am more likely to cook something more harvest oriented and locally sourced such as last-of-the-season wild CoHo salmon or halibut, so that we can save turkey for American Thanksgiving and/or Christmas. Canadians love roast turkey and will often serve it again for their celebratory Christmas dinners. :)
msmely October 13, 2016
The only true-blue Canadian dessert I've seen at thanksgiving is butter tarts.
Westcoasty October 12, 2016
I have never seen a doughnut at any Canadian holiday dinner, including Thanksgiving. At my house we always had pumpkin pie for dessert, after turkey, cranberry jelly, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and vegetable sides (usually Brussels sprouts). Some families do sweet potatoes.

I will add that while someone might sneak in a store-bought pumpkin or apple pie if pressed for time, buying doughnuts for dessert would be considered to be a social embarrassment, showing both lack of interest in preparing for guests and very low class tastes. Doughnuts are a treat at kids' sports games or maybe a work coffee break, not a dessert acceptable for a festive meal.
Sara A. October 12, 2016
Yes, ALWAYS butter tarts, but no, never doughnuts! Pies all the way :) We have been making apple pies for Thanksgiving for 40 years with 3 generations.
Edison M. October 12, 2016
We have been celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving for years. It actually is nice to have a family gathering without the weight of football, shopping and traffic competing with simple reflection. Doughnuts? No, but potato stuffing -yes!
Leah October 12, 2016
I thought Martha Stewart would have better fact checkers. Pie (usually apple and/or pumpkin) are what the vast majority of people have for Thanksgiving dessert. I never heard of anyone having doughnuts. Weird. With family and friends on both sides of the border, I can say that after more than 4 decades of Thanksgivings (times two!), the standard foods tend to be the same.
Jenn K. October 11, 2016
Always turkey, stuffing, cranberry relish, mashed potatoes, roasted squash, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin pie and maybe an apple or pear-cranberry pie. Never donuts (wtf?). I always grab the previous November's Bon Appétit to plan my menu!
zarakat October 10, 2016
Bridget from has clearly never been to Canada, or talked to a Canadian for that matter. I don't know why everyone in this article thinks we are obsessed with doughnuts! Everyone I know has pumpkin or apple pie for dessert. Canadian thanksgiving menus are very similar to our American friends, except you will never catch us putting marshmallows on our yams or those fake onion things on our green beans. In Saskatchewan it's very common to have cabbage rolls with dinner as there is a strong Ukrainian heritage in our province. Readers from other provinces - what are your regional specialities?
peregrinojacqueline October 10, 2016
Doughnuts for Thanksgiving dinner? No. Seriously. No. Buttertarts-mandatory.
It's a feast day for sure, a gathering of family for a communal meal, games, visiting. It's the start of the indoor season, the leaves are raked, the outdoor furniture is put away and the Christmas lights get put up before the snow flies. It's bringing the warmth inside at the beginning of the cold season.

peregrinojacqueline October 10, 2016
Just as an afterthought, many people don't even celebrate on the day-the holiday is often for leftovers and soup making, a day to recover from all the food and socializing before going back to work.
Sheila K. October 10, 2016
Donuts - seriously? Have never heard of that. It's a celebration of the great Fall harvest foods and thanks and gratitude for food, health, and family. Common dishes include turkey, stuffing, seasonal vegetables, potatoes, and pies. . . usually pumpkin!
Morgan October 10, 2016
Turkey, dressing, gravy, potatoes, various root vegetable dishes, and pie or tarts. Definitely have never heard of anyone having doughnuts! Canadian thanksgiving is about family, food, and the harvest, with no patriotic or commercial themes. And lots of time to recover before Christmas!
sandy October 10, 2016
I love two Thanksgivings. I don't mind cooking two meals. What doesn't work in one, I can fix by the second. Canadians love family meals...lots of turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie...and the best part of the holiday is that it is celebrated during the most beautiful part of Autumn....not in late, dreary November.
Susan G. October 10, 2016
Always with family and friends! Turkey, gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce are the centre piece. Dessert was always , pumpkin pie, apple pie or butter tarts.
Carolyn October 10, 2016
Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and vegetables sides, sometimes a prime rib roast. Pumpkin or Apple pie. If we're really lucky, butter tarts too !
Carolyn October 10, 2016
Never, have I ever seen a doughnut. Good grief.
Baleen October 10, 2016
I've never seen a doughnut at a holiday meal in Canada Thanksgiving or otherwise. All the Thanksgiving meals I've participated in have a common theme; turkey or ham, sometimes both. Lots of mashed potatoes, gravy, other cooked veggie dishes, and salad. Dessert can vary but includes a pie or two, including pumpkin. In my family and my husbands everybody brings a component of the meal outside of the turkey and potatoes.
porsha October 10, 2016
As a Canadian who can remember celebrating 30+ Thanksgivings, I can say with certainty that none of them ever contained a doughnut.
porsha October 10, 2016
And I do agree, as a holiday Thanksgiving has never been as important here as it is for the US.

We do pumpkin pie, but butter tarts are equally favoured ;)