Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Action de Grâce

For you Americans out there, Thanksgiving in Canada takes place in early October. In Western Canada (and I always assumed the rest of the country), it's not as huge a deal as in the states, but it's definitely a real holiday. It's a bank and work holiday, people travel for the long weekend and families get together and have a big meal with turkey or sometimes goose.

Here in Québec, it's still an official holiday (Le jour d'action de grâce, but the French-Canadians don't really seem to celebrate it. My first sense of this was when my roommate went up and down Mont-Royal, which has several large supermarkets, unable to find either pumpkin pie or canned pumpkin. He thought he was in an episode of the twilight zone ("I think that may be an indication of culture shock," I said). It's weird, because there are pumpkins everywhere. They are for sale in all the supermarkets, they have giant ones in the massive outdoor Marchée Jean-Talon and people put them on their porches, along with ears of dried corn, mini straw bales and other seasonal decorations.

I asked around after that, just about the pumpkin pie. Some people had never even heard of pumpkin pie. My priest-in-training friend, who comes from outside Ottawa said "Tarte de croustille? Ca ce n'est pas bon. On a servi tare au sucre, bien sur!" [pumpkin pie? That doesn't sound good. We had sugar pie, of course.] Those who had heard of it said, and this I find really interesting, that it was probably an American tradition. I heard this from three different people. I can tell you that Western Canadians do not think of the way they celebrate Thanksgiving as american at all. I got the same response when asking about Halloween. They celebrate it here and the kids come around, but they don't say "Trick or Treat" in french. They just ask for a little gift or offerings, very politely of course. When I said that in the west, we say Trick or Treat, I got the same response, that it was probably borrowed from traditions in the U.S.

I don't know where pumpkin pie or trick or treat came from. It could well have originated in the States, or at least elements of those cultural behaviours made their way through the U.S. before coming to Western Canada. But I think most Canadians consider them a fundamental part of their own culture. It's interesting that French-Canadians should see them as being fundamentally American and therefore non-Canadian. I think it's an example of their cultural ignorance (that sounds much more negative than I mean it) towards Western Canada. But it fits in with their general sense of being surrounded by a relentless wave of generic english culture. I'm sure that those French-Canadians who've lived in the west long enough to celebrate some Thanksgivings would see that though very similar to the American holiday, it is also a holiday that is very Canadian.

For one, it is significantly less commercial. All the pilgrims and indians and all that historical stuff, comes through American television, which we barely got in the days before cable and still most Canadians watch at a remove. The watching of a pro football game happens much more rarely and nobody watches the college games, which is a big deal in the states. And the size of gatherings are much smaller, tending to be immediate family with a few grandparents or an aunt and uncle with a couple cousins. In the US, it's a big deal, with quite large parties and often lots of friends as well. I know it doesn't sound like much, but when you're a Canadian and you come to an American thanksgiving party, it seems pretty exciting and important but it also lacks the calm intimacy the ones you're used to.


Anonymous said...

I always thought that Canadian Thanksgiving was a pale imitation of American Thanksgiving, and Canadians knew this. When did Canadian Thanksgiving start? Were there Canadian pilgrims? Weren't there just nasty jesuits? Did the natives teach Canadian pioneers about corn, and how to survive through the winter with it -- do they have a myth like the Americans? I think there was probably some kindof traditional harvest meal in Canada that the government later tried to rebrand as Thanksgiving to be more American.

Jason L said...

Oh come on, why does Canadian Thanksgiving have to be a pale imitation? True enough, we don't have the Mayflower story but there were early settlers and and they had a good whack at taking out the Natives just as the Americans did. In my opinion, as a celebration of harvest, Canadians have a lot better idea of whats going on than the Americans. Who the hell is still harvesting in late November?? Thanks for the football, though.