By Christopher Hodson
Americans, think fast: pause those (no doubt) raucous Columbus Day festivities and tilt an ear to the north. Sounds from beyond the 45th parallel should emerge. These may include Molson-fueled merriment and the windswept yawning of those huge CFL end zones. That’s right, it’s Canadian Thanksgiving! Yeah, they have one too.
It’s pretty much like ours, only on the first Monday of October, presumably because gravy freezes up there in late November. Born of the same pagan-turned-Christian impulse to commemorate another death-stalling harvest, Thanksgiving in both the United States and Canada got serious during the sanctimonious back half of the nineteenth century. The US made things official in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln created a federal holiday in gratitude for “fruitful fields” and to atone for American “perverseness and disobedience”; Canadians took their first steps in 1872, giving thanks to God when the Prince of Wales got better from typhoid fever. These pious urges, however, have gone the way of whalebone corsets. Now stripped of religious significance, Thanksgiving is just another commercialized red-letter day on North America’s non-liturgical calendar.
Trying to differentiate between today’s Canadian and American holidays gets silly fast. In the short film “Crappy Canadian Thanksgiving”, for instance, actress Ellen Page (the pride of Halifax, Nova Scotia) seems destined to spend her holiday in the US among unknowing neighbors, quietly reading a Canadian translation of Twilight. But American friends come to the rescue with an “authentic” Thanksgiving complete with Canadian Club whiskey (under the influence of which Ellen says R-rated things about — gasp — Céline Dion), poutine, flipper pie, and maple syrup. Turns out, though, that the Americans cook and eat Ellen, declaring her tastier than last year’s rack of Martin Short.
The underlying jokes here are the absurdity of (a) distinctions between American and Canadian Thanksgiving, and (b) the idea that Americans would want to consume a nice Canadian. Continental sameness and good feelings reign now, but it wasn’t always the case.
Before there was Canada there was New France, and before there was New France there was Acadia, whose first settlers had some pretty wild Thanksgivings. In the late summer of 1606, a group of Frenchmen sailed up the Bay of Fundy and planted a little colony called Port Royal on the western shore of present-day Nova Scotia. Led by a would-be fur trade baron, the sieur de Poutrincourt, and the future founder of Québec, Samuel de Champlain, the French soon realized how nasty the winter was going to be. So melding their own harvest traditions with those of the local Mi’kmaq (whose “banquets” featured piles of meat, lots of smoking, and tall tales), the French founded l’ordre du bon-temps, or the Order of Good Cheer.
Beginning that November, members of the order took turns hosting Thanksgiving parties complete with music, plays, wine, fish, and game. Not to stereotype, but moose pâté and beaver tail were apparently favorites. Membertou, the bearded sagamore of the Mi’kmaq, had a place at the table, as did the heads of other clans who brought plenty of goodies to the events. Indeed, the natives “ate and drank like us,” reported one French observer: “We took pleasure in seeing them, and their absence caused us sadness.”
I like to think that the party-people reputation earned by the Order of Good Cheer had something to do with the first “American” Thanksgiving. When Puritans landed at Plymouth in 1620, the nearby Wampanoag wanted nothing to do with them. English slave-raiders had lately been active around Cape Cod, spreading disease and ill-will. When contact became unavoidable, the Wampanoag chief Massasoit talked an Abenaki visitor named Samoset into breaking the ice. Abenaki country stretched from New England to the Maritimes, so Samoset’s people were familiar with the French in Acadia, and knew English traders on the Maine coast too. So he stripped down, painted up, and walked into Plymouth, welcoming the pilgrims in their own tongue. Perhaps hoping for some French-style Good Cheer, Samoset then asked for a beer.
The next year, the Puritans held a Thanksgiving feast to celebrate their survival and to mark a treaty with the Wampanoag. It wasn’t so different from the parties Poutrincourt and Champlain held at Port Royal: natives and Europeans sat around and ate.
But from a common starting point, the French and English took different paths. The 20,000 or so migrants to the Massachusetts-Bay Colony in the 1630s demanded land, which drove the Puritans into conflict with just about all of New England’s Indians. Fewer in number, the French in Acadia and the Saint Lawrence Valley were more cautious. Everywhere they went, they built alliances with natives who helped them sustain the fur trade and fight the English. Not that they loved all Indians; ask the Iroquois or the Fox, pounded by French-led attacks for much of the seventeenth century. But the intercultural links were so enduring that the Puritans saw little distinction between “French and Indian Demoniacks.”
Through it all, Thanksgivings continued. Geopolitics, however, turned them cruel. The French in Canada celebrated Louis XIV’s European wars and native-aided victories against English colonists. In Massachusetts, Thanksgiving was folded into a calendar of religious holidays turned-royal pep rallies. By the 1690s, Cotton Mather, the ne plus ultra of Bostonian priggishness, styled Frenchmen “the worst of Harpys.” In 1760, when Montréal fell to the British, a New England minister reminded his Thanksgiving congregation that it was hardly “sinful to rejoice in the Ruin and Downfall of an unreasonable and implacable enemy.” “Tis’ our Duty,” he proclaimed, “to praise GOD when we are able to set our feet upon their necks.” These guys might not have eaten Ellen Page, but they’d have been happy to see her go.
Our dull, undifferentiated North American Thanksgivings, then, hearken back to a time when early Canadians, New Englanders, and native Americans were grateful for each other’s deaths. So tonight, I’m embracing the modern. I’ll try to get my hands on some caribou jerky and flip between Roughriders vs. Alouettes and Texans vs. Jets. And thankfully, I’ll do it in peace.
Christopher Hodson is Assistant Professor of History at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He is the author of The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History.