Features & Stories


By Trudy Frisk

Ready for Winter

People who believe all that separates Canadians from Americans are the 49th parallel and the interrogatory "Eh?" should consider Thanksgiving. Timing, traditions, even turkey, 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 Xmas 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 neigbhours to the north took an entire long weekend for what they consider a one day event may have seriously undermined the Californians' 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 Indian neighbours, and featured native (North American) food. Images of Pilgrims, pumpkins and pleasant, helpful First Nations companions mingle to form a picture of Thanksgiving.

A good Harvest

Here in Canada, we're celebrating…..umm..er..? Sugaring-off in the maple groves? The beavers' 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 his voyage from England. Anyone who's experienced holiday traffic will sympathize. In the 1600's Frobishers' 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 Indian 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." I stared at her. "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 lifelong acquaintance with politicians of all varieties. Based on that, it seems to me, that, if any pardoning is to be done……

Autumn colours

In 1947 President Harry Truman first pardoned a turkey and every President since has continued the practice. The turkeys are carefully selected and include an alternative 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!

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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