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Thanksgiving in the USA & Canada

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Thanksgiving is a cherished holiday celebrated in both the United States and Canada, but have you ever wondered why these neighboring countries observe it on different dates? In this comprehensive blog post, we delve into the historical and cultural reasons behind this divergence. From tracing the origins of Thanksgiving in each country to understanding how historical events and traditions shaped their distinct celebrations, we uncover the fascinating story of why Thanksgiving in the USA and Canada takes place on different days. So, let's embark on a journey through time and tradition to unravel this intriguing aspect of North American culture.

I. The Origins of Thanksgiving

A. Thanksgiving in the United States:

Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in the United States has a rich history that dates back to the arrival of the Pilgrims on the shores of America. The Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, embarked on a treacherous journey aboard the Mayflower and arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. After a challenging first year in the New World, they celebrated a bountiful harvest in the autumn of 1621, which is often referred to as the first Thanksgiving.

During this inaugural feast, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans came together to express gratitude for the successful harvest. The celebration lasted for several days and included feasting on local produce such as corn, wild turkey, fish, and venison. The story of the Pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving has become deeply ingrained in American culture, symbolizing unity, perseverance, and gratitude.

Influence of Abraham Lincoln

Fast forward to the 19th century, and Thanksgiving took on a new significance. In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Lincoln saw Thanksgiving as an opportunity to promote unity and healing amidst the strife and division that plagued the nation. His proclamation called upon Americans to set aside a day to give thanks for the blessings of liberty, peace, and abundance.

As the years went by, Thanksgiving traditions continued to evolve and become ingrained in American society. One notable tradition that has become synonymous with Thanksgiving is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Originating in 1924, the parade was initially organized by Macy's employees as a way to celebrate the holiday season. Today, the parade is a grand spectacle featuring giant balloons, floats, marching bands, and celebrity performances, attracting millions of spectators both on the streets of New York City and through television broadcasts.

Modern Traditions

Another beloved tradition is the presidential turkey pardon. This light-hearted ceremony has its roots in the 1940s when President Harry S. Truman received a live turkey as a gift for Thanksgiving. In a playful gesture, Truman spared the turkey's life, thus beginning the tradition of pardoning turkeys from their fate of becoming the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinners. Since then, each year, the President of the United States has continued the tradition of pardoning a turkey, showcasing the spirit of compassion and mercy during the holiday season.

These modern traditions, such as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the presidential turkey pardon, have become iconic symbols of American Thanksgiving. They not only bring joy and excitement to the holiday but also serve as a reminder of the historical roots and values associated with Thanksgiving in the United States.

B. Thanksgiving in Canada:

Frobisher's Celebration

Thanksgiving in Canada also has intriguing origins that can be traced back to the 16th century. While the story of the Pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving in Plymouth is widely known, the Canadian Thanksgiving has its own unique history. The origins of Canadian Thanksgiving can be traced to English explorer Martin Frobisher and his gratitude for safe passage.

In 1578, Martin Frobisher embarked on a perilous journey in search of the Northwest Passage, a route to Asia through the North American continent. After facing numerous challenges and storms, Frobisher and his crew safely returned to Canada's eastern coast. In gratitude for their safe passage, Frobisher held a thanksgiving celebration, expressing thanks for their deliverance. This event, although not an annual occurrence, marks one of the earliest recorded instances of thanksgiving celebrations in what is now Canada.

Influence of the United States

The influence of American Thanksgiving also played a significant role in the development of Canadian Thanksgiving as a national holiday. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many American loyalists migrated to Canada, bringing with them their Thanksgiving traditions. These American settlers continued to celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada, but it was not yet recognized as a national holiday.

The formal establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in Canada came much later, in 1957. The Canadian Parliament proclaimed the second Monday in October as Thanksgiving, aligning it with the harvest season. This choice reflects the importance of the autumn harvest in Canadian Thanksgiving traditions. The holiday serves as a time for Canadians to give thanks for the bountiful harvest and the blessings of the past year. Many Canadians gather with family and friends for a special meal that typically includes turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and other seasonal delights.

Canadian Thanksgiving Traditions

Canadian Thanksgiving traditions emphasize the importance of gratitude and appreciation. In addition to the festive meals, Canadians often take part in activities that celebrate the beauty of the fall season. These may include attending local fairs and festivals, going for scenic hikes, or visiting apple orchards and pumpkin patches. The display of gratitude and appreciation for the blessings of nature and community lies at the heart of Canadian Thanksgiving.

While Thanksgiving in Canada may have different origins and traditions compared to its American counterpart, both holidays share the common theme of expressing gratitude. Whether it is commemorating Martin Frobisher's safe return or celebrating the autumn harvest, Canadian Thanksgiving serves as a time for reflection, appreciation, and coming together as a community.

II. Historical Factors

A. Impact of Geography:

Climate and Harvest Timing

The timing of Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States and Canada is influenced by various geographical factors. The differences in climate and agricultural cycles play a significant role in determining the dates for these holidays. In the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, which aligns with the end of the harvest season in most parts of the country. The timing allows people to express gratitude for the bountiful harvest and the abundance of food. In Canada, Thanksgiving falls on the second Monday of October, reflecting the earlier harvest season in the northern regions. The colder climate in Canada necessitates an earlier celebration to coincide with the completion of the harvest.

Regional Variations

Moreover, regional variations within each country further shape the timing and significance of Thanksgiving celebrations. In the United States, different states and communities may have their unique customs and practices associated with Thanksgiving. For instance, some regions may emphasize specific agricultural products, such as cranberries or sweet potatoes, in their Thanksgiving meals. Additionally, cultural and historical influences within specific regions can contribute to variations in Thanksgiving observances, such as Native American traditions or specific religious practices.

B. Political and Cultural Influences:

Cultural Heritage

The diverse cultural heritage of the United States and Canada has also played a significant role in shaping the variations in Thanksgiving observances. In the United States, the holiday is deeply rooted in the history of early European settlers and the interactions between colonizers and Native American communities. This blend of cultural influences is reflected in the diversity of Thanksgiving traditions across the country. Different cultural groups may incorporate their unique customs, foods, and rituals into their Thanksgiving celebrations, adding richness and diversity to the holiday.

Historical Events

Historical events have also influenced the dates and customs associated with Thanksgiving in both countries. In the United States, the American Revolutionary War played a pivotal role in the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. During the war, various states observed thanksgiving days to express gratitude for military victories or to seek divine intervention. After the war, these individual state observances gradually merged into a unified national celebration. Similarly, the World Wars in the 20th century influenced Thanksgiving observances, as people sought to express gratitude for peace and the return of soldiers.

In Canada, the history of Thanksgiving is intertwined with political and cultural influences. The holiday was initially celebrated at different times in different provinces, with no unified date. It was not until 1957 that the Canadian Parliament established the second Monday of October as the official Thanksgiving day. This choice aimed to align the holiday with the autumn harvest and to provide a long weekend for families to come together

III. Contemporary Observances and Celebrations

A. Thanksgiving in the United States:

Festive Traditions

Thanksgiving in the United States is marked by a plethora of festive traditions that have become deeply ingrained in American culture. One of the most iconic aspects is the gathering of family and loved ones. Thanksgiving brings people together from near and far, creating a sense of warmth, togetherness, and gratitude. It is a time for family members to reconnect, share stories, and create lasting memories.

Feasting on a delicious turkey is another cherished tradition. Roasted turkey, often accompanied by a variety of side dishes such as stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, takes center stage on Thanksgiving tables across the country. The meal is prepared with love and care, and it symbolizes abundance and gratitude for the blessings of the year.

In addition to the traditional family feast, American Thanksgiving is also synonymous with football games. Many families gather around the TV to watch exciting football matches, fostering a sense of camaraderie and friendly competition. The games have become a significant part of the Thanksgiving experience, creating a lively and festive atmosphere.

Black Friday

Another notable phenomenon associated with American Thanksgiving is Black Friday. This day, which follows Thanksgiving, has become a major shopping event known for its deep discounts and sales. People often wake up early to take advantage of the deals, and it has become a tradition for many to kickstart their holiday shopping on this day. Black Friday has gained cultural significance as a symbol of consumerism and the official start of the holiday shopping season.

B. Thanksgiving in Canada:

Canadian Thanksgiving Traditions

Canadian Thanksgiving also has its unique set of traditions and customs. Gratitude is at the heart of Canadian Thanksgiving, as people take the time to reflect on their blessings and express appreciation for the abundance in their lives. Canadian families often gather around the table, much like their American counterparts, to enjoy a hearty meal together.

Canadian Thanksgiving meals often showcase regional specialties and local ingredients. The emphasis on incorporating regional flavors and dishes adds a distinct touch to the celebrations. For example, in Atlantic Canada, it is common to find seafood dishes like lobster or scallops on the Thanksgiving menu, while in the Prairies, hearty dishes such as tourtière or perogies may make an appearance. This diversity reflects Canada's rich culinary heritage and highlights the importance of local produce.

Differences and Similarities

When comparing American and Canadian Thanksgiving celebrations, there are both similarities and differences. Both holidays revolve around expressing gratitude and enjoying a festive meal with loved ones. Family gatherings and the spirit of togetherness are fundamental to both celebrations. However, there are some distinctions. Canadian Thanksgiving falls on a different date and is associated with the completion of the harvest season, while American Thanksgiving is tied to historical events and the end of November. Additionally, certain traditions, such as football games and Black Friday, are more closely associated with American Thanksgiving.

IV. Travel and Cultural Exchange

A. Experiencing American Thanksgiving:

Visiting the United States

Visiting the United States during Thanksgiving offers an incredible opportunity to witness and participate in the rich traditions and festivities of this beloved holiday. Each state in the United States has its own unique way of celebrating Thanksgiving, adding a diverse and captivating aspect to the experience.

From the bustling streets of New York City, where the iconic Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade fills the air with excitement and larger-than-life floats, to the serene beauty of New England, where the historic charm of Thanksgiving is deeply rooted in the region's history, there is something for everyone to explore and enjoy.

Immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere of Thanksgiving in America by attending a local community event or joining a traditional feast hosted by a welcoming family. Engage in lively conversations, listen to heartfelt stories, and savor the flavors of the traditional Thanksgiving meal, which often includes not only turkey but also delicious side dishes like cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole.

B. Experiencing Canadian Thanksgiving:

Exploring Canada

Exploring Canada during the Thanksgiving season opens the door to a unique and enriching cultural experience. Canadian Thanksgiving, with its emphasis on gratitude and the harvest season, offers travelers a chance to witness the country's vibrant celebrations and partake in local traditions. Venture to the stunning landscapes of rural Canada, where you can witness the beauty of autumn foliage while taking part in community festivals and parades. Embrace the warmth and hospitality of the Canadian people as you join them in expressing gratitude for the bountiful harvest.

In regions like Quebec, immerse yourself in the rich heritage of French-Canadian traditions, with feasts featuring traditional dishes like tourtière, a savory meat pie, and tarte au sucre, a delectable sugar pie. Attend local events such as harvest fairs and agricultural exhibitions, where you can witness the importance of agriculture in Canadian culture.

Canadian Thanksgiving is also an ideal time to explore the country's breathtaking national parks and enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, canoeing, or wildlife spotting. Take in the awe-inspiring beauty of nature while connecting with the Canadian spirit of gratitude and appreciation.

Whether you choose to experience American Thanksgiving with its iconic parades and festive gatherings or immerse yourself in the unique traditions of Canadian Thanksgiving, both journeys offer an opportunity for cultural exchange, creating lasting memories and fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of these rich and diverse North American celebrations.

As we conclude our exploration into the divergence of Thanksgiving celebrations in the USA and Canada, we come to appreciate the rich historical, cultural, and regional factors that shape these cherished holidays. While both nations express gratitude and togetherness, the different dates and customs make each Thanksgiving experience truly unique. Whether you choose to celebrate in the United States or Canada, embracing the traditions and learning from the local communities will undoubtedly enrich your understanding of North American culture. So, mark your calendars and embark on an unforgettable journey to celebrate Thanksgiving, embracing the spirit of gratitude and unity that defines this beloved holiday.

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celebrate thanksgiving on different dates


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