Canadian

A Brief History of Canadian Thanksgiving

And what we can learn from our neighbors up north.

October  1, 2019
Photo by Sydney Kramer

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.

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Top Comment:
“The most genius thing about the three day weekend for us is that you could potentially have three and maybe up to six thanksgiving meals as some do a full blown thanksgiving lunch as well. My ex in-laws always did the lunch thing. And yes, butter tarts are included and don’t forget the mincemeat tarts. Our family pretty much duplicates the big turkey dinner at Christmas. I’m Ukrainian-Canadian so sometimes pyrohy and holubsti are included with a condiment of shredded beets, horseradish, sugar, vinegar and salt. Basically, our thanksgiving is really at the tail end of harvest season so EVERYTHING is on the table :)”
— Barb S.
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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.

Are you celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving this year? Let us know how in the comments below.

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30 Comments

Anne C. October 14, 2019
Yes you can get to celebrate more than one thanksgiving in Canada. You might celebrate with your own sisters and brothers than share a meal with in-laws and sometimes even a third with office friends whose families are too far away. If you’re really lucky you’ll have some leftovers enough to make a hot turkey sandwich. Yum.
 
howcool October 13, 2019
Please note: we call the holiday "Thanksgiving", not "Canadian Thanksgiving", as you suggest in your article. And tourtière is far more likely to be served at Christmas or New Year than on Thanksgiving.
 
Author Comment
Ellen G. October 15, 2019
Hope you enjoyed a lovely Thanksgiving weekend, howcool. The weather was glorious, providing plenty of opportunity to visit your wonderful markets, public gardens, and waterfront.
 
Gwen October 13, 2019
Thanks for your summary of our Canadian Thanksgiving. I hope you enjoyed your visit with family in Canada.
It was interesting to learn that some families serve tortiere at Thanksgiving. I am in my 70s now and for as long as I can remember we had tortiere on Boxing Day. I think in most French Canadian homes it is served on Christmas Eve. Cheers
 
Joanne October 13, 2019
In my background, French Canadian, it has NEVER been pumpkin pie. Butter Tarts, and Apple pie were always the choice. We always viewed the pumpkin pie and candied yams an American spin and never appealed to my family. Still doesn't. And if you need a good recipe for butter tarts, sans corn syrup, let me know. :)
 
Pinkhouse P. October 13, 2019
One reason Canadians move the meal around on the weekend is that for many of us, Thanksgiving is the weekend when we close up our cottages for the winter. That means we have to do a massive fridge clean-out and put the kitchen (and everything else) to bed on Monday before the drive back to our city homes. We almost always have family dinner on Sunday to accommodate stragglers, those of us who have to work Saturday, etc. Monday we have turkey soup (with the leftovers thrown in) and turkey sandwiches for lunch. Most of us eat pumpkin pie but we have a pie alternative - usually apple, sometimes pecan - for those (like me) who don't love it. Happy Thanksgiving!
 
Tamara L. October 13, 2019
I am enjoying my Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, and the pumpkin pies are cooling. I was just thinking of making a few butter tarts, too and saw your article. I think your recipe as attached to the lovely article is missing eggs. The recipe in this article doesn’t match the one following the link provided.
 
Krista A. October 13, 2019
Loved this article! Our humble non-shopping Thanksgiving is a welcome beginning to indoor cooking, coziness and hibernation. Also, having a 2 month break for the next Turkey at the end of December is nice.
 
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Ellen G. October 16, 2019
Thank you, Krista A.! Hope you enjoyed a lovely holiday weekend. And yes, a slight turkey pause is a good thing.
 
Linda C. October 13, 2019
As a Canadian, I cannot imagine anything more appalling (and less Canadian) than putting corn syrup in butter tarts - blasphemy! But yes, yes we do add ethnic dishes to our feast. Trust me, there is something magical about turkey gravy over holopci (cabbage rolls). But it’s not always turkey. This year, my family is doing a roast duck with a kasha (buckwheat) casserole as the main side, and a pumpkin angel food cake for dessert. I have to be especially thankful for the option of having the big dinner on any of the three days - which solves the extended family problem. I do my dinner on Sunday. My oldest son’s wife’s family claims Monday, and my younger son’s wife’s family stakes out Saturday. Everybody’s happy - especially my sons who get to dive into two Thanksgiving dinners each!
 
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Ellen G. October 13, 2019
Hi All-
I also opt for your wonderful Canadian maple syrup when butter tart-ing. The recipe following the article is from the vast food52 archives. Sorry to learn about the egg omission.
Wishing everyone who celebrates a glorious holiday.🇨🇦🥧
 
Joanne October 13, 2019
Lovely article - all but the Frobisher part. Poor old Martin Frobisher never got past Baffin Island, and gathered masses of useless rocks, hoping they contained gold. As life-long Canadian, celebrating 70 thanksgivings, i had never heard of him settling down to a thanksgiving dinner!
 
howcool October 13, 2019
Then you missed that day in history class.
 
Joanne October 13, 2019
Yup, sure did! So did Martin Frobisher. So did Wikipedia...
 
soupcon October 9, 2019
No reason to have corn syrup as an ingredient in the butter tarts when Canadians have the best maple syrup in the world.
 
Mamag October 9, 2019
The beauty of our casual three day weekend allows for diversity in food and gatherings. Our adult son gets together with singles for a potluck one day, football friends on Sunday and family on Monday and no shopping. Time to make butter tarts!
 
glammie October 3, 2019
Another thing that makes Canadian T'giving unique is how we fold in our own cultural inspirations. My mother is West Indian, from Barbados, and it was not unusual to have Caribbean dishes along with typical Canadian fare on our T'giving table. Curried beef stews, black cake, rum punch - these things were all a part of my childhood Thanksgiving dinners. And the same thing went on in other homes with families with diverse backgrounds.
 
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Ellen G. October 3, 2019
I love this. Despite our cultural backgrounds, when we assemble around a table, we have much more in common than the things that keep us apart. Happy Holidays, glammie.
 
Sharon October 2, 2019
Thank you for sharing this wonderful post. I miss a lot of things, living in the US, about Canada and Canadian Thanksgiving but Butter Tarts and the casualness of it all are definitely high on my list. I will be making these this weekend.
 
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Ellen G. October 2, 2019
Happy Butter Tart, Baking Sharon and thanks for reading.
🥧
 
Sharon October 3, 2019
How exciting to get a response. I love, love, love Food 52 and reading the articles. Thank you.
 
Barb S. October 2, 2019
The most genius thing about the three day weekend for us is that you could potentially have three and maybe up to six thanksgiving meals as some do a full blown thanksgiving lunch as well. My ex in-laws always did the lunch thing. And yes, butter tarts are included and don’t forget the mincemeat tarts. Our family pretty much duplicates the big turkey dinner at Christmas. I’m Ukrainian-Canadian so sometimes pyrohy and holubsti are included with a condiment of shredded beets, horseradish, sugar, vinegar and salt. Basically, our thanksgiving is really at the tail end of harvest season so EVERYTHING is on the table :)
 
Author Comment
Ellen G. October 2, 2019
Wow! All one needs is a good pair of stretchy pants and learning how to pace oneself. Love the idea of a little of everything on the table. Happy Holidays, Barb.
 
Barb S. October 3, 2019
Very true lol, and thank you for the article. It’s always nice to see some info on our traditions up here. Happy Holidays to you too!
 
laurenlocally October 2, 2019
As a Canadian American, I actually don't love how the meal switches around over the weekend. There is something magical in the states about the quietness of the Thursday whenever so many people are celebrating one thing at the same time. But I love this article, and have a rival butter tart recipe ;)
 
Author Comment
Ellen G. October 3, 2019
I know! The sense that everything grinds to a halt is so typically Thanksgiving appropriate. But to travel to Canada and not be tethered to one meal at a specific o’clock is somewhat freeing. Thanks for reading, Lauren and Happy Holiday season.
 
M October 1, 2019
Oh, Canada! The 3-day option is the thing that sticks out to me most. Makes so much more sense than overindulging and having to go to work the next day.
 
tariqata October 1, 2019
I’m reminded of the Thanksgiving dinner one year when an American relative was visiting and asked about the genesis of Canadian Thanksgiving. We looked it up on the internet, of course, only to discover that some prankster had edited the Wikipedia article to include kittens as one of the traditional elements of the meal.

We go with the turkey in my family, but it’s really all about the stuffing - so much so that we no longer bother with potatoes, so that we can eat more of it.
 
porsha October 1, 2019
As a proud French Canadian I’m going to have to disagree with the inclusion of potatoes in tortiere, but otherwise this was a great post.
 
Author Comment
Ellen G. October 2, 2019
Thank you, Porsha. Right you are- the inclusion of potatoes in tortiere is often frowned upon. I learned (from a Canadian baker) to include a little potato to hold everything together. Thanks for reading and wishing you a Happy Holiday!