A fragrant, sizzling turkey with crispy skin and creamy gravy, a table surrounded by family and friends, and beautiful autumn weather -- no wonder Thanksgiving is such a beloved holiday in Canada and the United States alike. But while both countries celebrate the holiday, there are a number of differences worth noting.
Whether you’re planning on celebrating the holiday with Canadian family members, you’re looking to make a Canadian expat feel welcome in your home, or you’re simply curious, these are nine key things to know about Canadian Thanksgiving.
1. Canadian Thanksgiving Takes Place In October
Thanksgiving in Canada always falls on the second Monday in October -- well before Americans are even thinking of buying their turkey! It’s been this way since 1957, when the government finally settled on an official date. Before that, it was celebrated on Remembrance Day (November 11), and, in early days, any time between April and November.
2. Canadian Thanksgiving Has Been Celebrated For Different Reasons
It’s not surprising that Thanksgiving is a popular holiday in Canada -- the earliest known Canadian Thanksgiving celebration predated the first Thanksgiving in the U.S.!
The first Thanksgiving in Canada took place all the way back in 1578, when the English explorer Martin Frobisher and his crew had a special feast to thank God for granting them safe passage through Northern Canada. By 1859, Protestant ministers were petitioning the government for an official day of thanks for the harvest. Other Canadian Thanksgiving celebrations were held in gratitude for being spared the bloodshed of the American Civil War and to celebrate the Prince of Wales recovering from serious illness in 1872.
However, most Canadians today would tell you that Canadian Thanksgiving is simply a celebration of the harvest season and the community. When you think about it, that’s as good an explanation as any!
3. Canadian Thanksgiving Celebrations Are Very Relaxed
While some Canadians enjoy the festive preparations for a formal Thanksgiving dinner, most families take a very relaxed approach. Dress is casual, and guests are invited to come by early to snack, drink wine, and lend a helping hand in the preparations.
Things are so relaxed that there’s not really any consensus on when the Thanksgiving meal ought to take place. While a lot of families celebrate on Monday evening, Sunday is also very popular, and it’s not unusual for the meal to take place at dinner or even lunchtime on Friday or Saturday. (And, yes, many people attend multiple Thanksgiving meals over the course of the weekend. No shame!)
4. No One’s Thinking About Christmas
When Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated in early October, Christmas is still a long way off. Canadians tend to think of Halloween as the next big holiday after Thanksgiving, not Christmas. There’s no pressure to find gifts or decorate for the holidays over Thanksgiving weekend. And while just about anything goes when it comes to Thanksgiving desserts, you’re unlikely to find Christmas specialties like peppermint bark, fruitcake, or shortbreads.
5. There’s No Parade
A lot of Canadians enjoy watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade during American Thanksgiving, but television doesn’t play a big role in Canadian Thanksgiving. Some die-hard fans will watch Canadian Football League games, but most people are keen to get outside if the weather is nice.
Thanksgiving weekend is when Canadians take scenic drives to see the changing leaves, go for hikes with the family, or tackle outdoor chores like gardening. Those who own a seasonal cottage will often use the long weekend to close up the cottage for the season -- in which case, their Thanksgiving dinner might include some creative side dishes to use up whatever food is left in the cupboard!
6. Thanksgiving Sales Aren’t Really A Thing
Black Friday and Cyber Monday aren’t a part of Canadian Thanksgiving, though many retailers will host sales come American Thanksgiving. In general, Thanksgiving in Canada isn’t associated with shopping or sales.
7. You Probably Won’t Find Your Favorite Side Dishes
It isn’t Thanksgiving dinner without the side dishes. Who doesn’t love mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce? However, many of the most common Thanksgiving side dishes in the U.S. are all but unknown in Canada.
Sweet potato pie and candied yams aren’t popular at all in Canada. However, you might see sweet potatoes as part of a dish of mixed root vegetables roasted with rosemary and olive oil.
Most Canadians would be perplexed at the sight of creamed spinach on their Thanksgiving table, but some serve a spinach salad at dinner or a spinach artichoke dip to snack on before the big meal.
You won’t usually find macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, and cornbread at Canadian Thanksgiving dinners. However, instant macaroni and cheese is pretty popular a few days after Thanksgiving, when everyone’s tired of turkey! Green beans are commonly served at Canadian Thanksgiving dinners, but they’re mostly unadorned save for lots of butter. And while Canadians love fresh cornbread, classic dinner rolls are much more popular at Thanksgiving time.
8. You’ll Encounter Some New Flavors
Depending on where you are in Canada, you might discover some unique regional flavors at Thanksgiving. Each region has its own particular method of preparation and seasonings, from ultra-fine minced meats to dashes of cinnamon and nutmeg.
In Newfoundland, dressing and stuffing are always flavored with savory. Leftover dressing is served crumbled over French fries and topped with gravy. In Scottish communities across the Maritime provinces, neeps -- a mash or puree of carrots and turnips -- is common. In French-speaking Canada, especially in Quebec, tourtiere takes center stage next to the turkey, and sometimes replaces it. These deep-dish pies are filled with minced meats (usually a mix of pork and beef), seasonings like onions and herbs, and sometimes veggies like potatoes. In the prairie communities of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon berries are likely to pop up in pies, scones, and even savory dishes.
Does maple syrup play a big role in Canadian Thanksgiving? Not really. Maple-glazed roasted Brussels sprouts and maple-infused desserts are common, but no one really goes over the top. Remember, maple syrup season is early spring, so maple syrup is not really a seasonal ingredient in October.
9. Trying Canadian Thanksgiving Dinner Is Easy
If you want to try the flavors of a classic Canadian Thanksgiving, there are a number of ways you can do so.
First, ask a friendly Canadian if you can crash their gathering! If you promise to bring wine, there’s a good chance you’ll be welcomed with open arms.
Barring that, many luxury hotels offer a special Thanksgiving menu for guests to enjoy. Additionally, in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, many rural churches, community centers, and charitable organizations will host turkey dinners as a fundraising activity. And if you’re tired of Thanksgiving turkey, many of these same organizations now offer a decidedly non-Thanksgiving meal (like a roast-beef dinner or Italian meatball night) during the weeks after Thanksgiving. One way or another, you’re bound to get a good meal!