Imagine the Thanksgiving holiday a month and a half early—and though there’s plenty of pumpkin pie, there’s not a Pilgrim in sight. For 37 million Canadians, that’s the reality of the second Monday in each October.
Many of the trappings of Canadian Thanksgiving are similar to those of its U.S. counterpart, but the Canadian tradition belongs to the 16th century, more than four decades before the historic 1621 gathering in Plymouth, Massachusetts that set American Thanksgiving into motion. (How the traditional American Thanksgiving feast evolved over the centuries.)
Origins of Canadian Thanksgiving
Canadian Thanksgiving kicked off with a feast of biscuits, salt beef, and mushy peas in 1578. That’s when Sir Martin Frobisher sailed from England in search of the Northwest Passage. After his crew’s arrival in Nunavut (now Canada’s most northerly territory) Frobisher’s men gathered, ate, and took part in a Church of England service with Mayster Wolfall, an Anglican minister, who preached “a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankful to God for their strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.”
Both Native Americans and indigenous Canadians had long celebrated the fall harvest, and white settlers attempted to follow suit as they settled on the Canadian mainland. Early attempts at French settlement along Canada’s Atlantic coast had been disastrous, and culminated in 1604 with a scurvy epidemic that took place after French settlers ignored warnings that winter ice would trap them on Île-Ste.-Croix, an island in the Bay of Fundy. They pressed forward and ended up isolated on the island for months; half of the group of settlers died of scurvy before being rescued by Indigenous Canadians.
Those who survived moved to Port Royal in what is now Nova Scotia, where Samuel de Champlain mandated a series of feasts he called the Ordre de Bon Temps, or “Order of Good Cheer.” Designed to keep the settlers’ spirits up, the feasts kicked off with a Thanksgiving-like November 1616 event that included Mi’kmaq people.
How Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated
As in the United States, Canada observed occasional Thanksgivings to celebrate important events such as the end of the War of 1812. And like its neighbor, Canada’s first thanksgivings tended to be prayerful affairs. The two countries also celebrated similarly; thanks to pro-British Loyalists who moved to Canada during and after the Revolutionary War, New England staples like turkey and pumpkin were introduced to Canada, too. (Here are a few turkey facts for Thanksgiving table talk.)
Thanksgiving became a national affair in Canada starting in 1859, again beating the United States to the pumpkin pie. (Abraham Lincoln set the precedent for the annual holiday in the U.S. after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, when he gave in to decades of lobbying by women’s magazine mogul Sarah Josepha Hale and set the holiday for the last Thursday of November).
Unlike American Thanksgiving, Canada’s national Thanksgiving date took decades to become standardized and annual. In 1957, Canada’s parliament set the date as the second Monday in October. By then, the United States was celebrating its Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November.
Though plenty of Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving, it isn’t a public holiday in three of the country’s provinces: Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. In Quebec, which has strong Catholic roots, the holiday has historically been downplayed. And Thanksgiving also isn’t the major travel and shopping event it’s become in the United States. The holiday may have come earlier to Canada, but its southern cousin is much more invested in celebrating.