By Trudy Frisk
People who believe all that separates Canadians from Americans are the 49th parallel and the interrogatory “Eh?” should consider Thanksgiving. Timing, traditions, even turkeys, are treated very differently on either side of the border. I realized this when saying goodbye to my brother and his American partner after a visit.
“Come back to see us at Thanksgiving!” they chorused.
“I certainly will,” I replied happily. There was a moment’s hesitation. Kitty and I stared at each other and asked in unison “Your Thanksgiving or mine?”
There’s quite a difference.
In the U.S., Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November complete with football games and marching bands. It’s winter in northern states and Christmas items are jostling the Thanksgiving displays.
Canadian Thanksgiving, in contrast, occurs on the second Monday of October, early enough in autumn for one last sojourn at the cabin or cottage, a chance to swim or take the boat out before winter. It’s a peaceful time of raking leaves and tidying away summer’s remains, or for the more adventurous, one final, glorious mountain hike among fall colours before snow comes.
For, in Canada, Thanksgiving is always a long weekend. We make the most of our holidays. When a nephew of mine moved from Vancouver to San Francisco, it’s hard to say whether he or his new fellow employees were more surprised to learn about differing Thanksgiving practices. Discovering that their neighbours to the north took an entire long weekend for what they consider a one day event may have seriously undermined the Californian’s idea of steady, industrious Canadians.
Everyone knows that American Thanksgiving commemorates the 1621 harvest of the Plymouth Colony after a winter of severe hardship, that it was shared by their aboriginal neighbours, and featured native North American food. Images of pumpkins. Pilgrims, and pleasant, helpful First Nations companions, mingle to form a picture of Thanksgiving.
Here in Canada, we’re celebrating......umm...er....? Sugaring off in the maple groves? The beaver’s annual hibernation?
In fact, the first official Thanksgiving in North America was held in Newfoundland, (later part of Canada), in 1578, when navigator Martin Frobisher gave thanks for surviving the voyage from England. Anyone who’s experienced holiday traffic will sympathize.
In the 1600’s Frobisher’s sedate affair was eclipsed by the French settlers who followed Champlain. Always eager for a good party, they formed “The Order Of Good Cheer” and shared their annual gala with their indigenous associates.
Later immigrants brought their own traditions of harvest festivals. In 1879 the Canadian Parliament declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, but, for years, the date fluctuated. Finally, on January 31, 1957, Parliament, giving a collective sigh of determination, proclaimed the current date.
It’s treatment of turkeys, though, that really separates the two nation’s holidays. “Does your Prime Minister pardon a turkey?” asked Kitty.
“Our President pardons a turkey every Thanksgiving.”
“He pardons a turkey? Why? What’s it done?”
“It’s an annual tradition.” she replied.
This was news. My own knowledge of turkeys is sketchy—limited to those accompanied by stuffing and cranberry sauce. I do, however, have a life long acquaintance with politicians of all varieties. Based on that, it seems to me, that, if any pardoning is to be done........
In 1947, President Harry Truman first pardoned a turkey and every President has continued the practice. The turkeys are carefully selected and include an alternate in case the National Turkey is unable to fulfill its duties.
I admitted to Kitty that Canadians don’t pardon turkeys. Here, in the cold, white North, we expect the worst and are seldom disappointed. When the axe falls, we’re not surprised. Furthermore, it could start a trend. Pardon a turkey and, next day, a collection of carrots will be asking for a reprieve. Give one turkey hope and soon we’ll all assume we can escape our responsibilities.
Kitty frowned thoughtfully, probably recalling her father’s warnings about foreigners and their peculiarities.
What becomes of the pardoned turkeys, I wondered. Supposedly, after the ceremony, the National Turkey and his alternate live long, quiet lives at a petting farm. But who checks to make sure? Stars, the 2003 turkey, was taken to Kidwell Farm in Frying Pan Park. Frying Pan Park? Shouldn’t alarm bells be ringing? Where’s it located? On Stove Top Stuffing Lane? Call me a cynic, but those turkeys should be getting their pardons in writing! (Kitty disagrees.)
Happy Thanksgiving, no matter when or how you celebrate it!