Thanksgiving’s Northern Light

We’re approaching the northern feast of Thanksgiving, a quiet holiday observed by Canadians on the second Monday of October, a time when the countryside’s drenched in gold and the air’s as crisp as an apple. Our tables groan with the seasonal treats of turkey and pumpkin pie, but like most things Canadian, the resemblance of our Thanksgiving feast to the customs of our southern friends is more apparent than real. Unlike Americans, families in Canada don’t feel compelled to draw “stray” friends to the table. Our celebration doesn’t share the ritual bonding which is one of the delights of the American feast — its re-enacting the founding myth of a people who aspire to welcome all.

Canada’s holiday is more elusive. It had liturgical origins in British harvest feasts of thanksgiving, and it commemorates no particular occasion, unless you count the giant sigh of relief from British explorer Martin Frobisher who avoided crashing through the ice (or worse) on his quest for the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean. His prayerful thanksgiving for deliverance was the first (1578), followed in 1604 by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain who, along with his chivalric “Order of Good Cheer,” shared a repast with the native population of New France. After that, the dates of Thanksgiving bounced around the calendar, and it was only in 1957 that the current date was set by law.  In practice, Canadians feast with their families on one (or more) convenient days of the long weekend. It’s no big deal, as they say.

My finest Thanksgiving memories hold my first experiences of the Canadian holiday, all spent with accidental “families” — fellow students or friends from outside Ontario, most too far from home to travel — wondrous good times, transcendent in the joyful spirit of the Sixties when they took place.  I remember a student retreat in the Caledon Hills outside of Toronto, the brilliant light of an October afternoon when we feasted and sang and played guitars at the table. I’d composed a little ditty based on a psalm about the hills that were girded in joy, simple enough for everyone to sing in that time of abundant hope, and for days afterward, I felt transformed, touched by that moment of sharing.  A few years later, some of us were still together in Toronto, more mature (we thought) and working; we had funds for a feast (with plentiful libations) which we all helped prepare. I don’t remember what we ate — only that it felt wonderful because we were friends who loved each other in the free and careless way that only happens when you’re young and life’s still untarnished enough for a glimpse of heaven. How thankful I am for these moments that still live outside of time; that continue to inspire and delight; that are, in some ways, our true thanksgiving.

Yet we drifted away and into other lives, and then Brian and I met. Neither of us have families in Canada, and over the years, we’ve found ourselves, for the most part, alone on this weekend. As Americans, we have a mythic, convivial Thanksgiving encoded in our DNA, and so this day has, at times, been one of poignancy and sadness. Yet it happened that many years ago, on a weekend in early October, our relationship began. We now celebrate Thanksgiving as the anniversary of this happy occasion. This year we’ll feast with an elegant meal and a stayover at a country inn in the hills outside Toronto.

When November comes, we can, if we choose, attend an American Thanksgiving, jovial and boisterous in the old-fashioned way. In doing this, we negotiate our two cultures, reflected in two parts of ourselves, the exuberant and the reflective.  This weekend, it’s reflection’s turn as we celebrate a Canadian holiday that is poignant and threaded with the passing of life. “And we will live,” says weary Sonya, laden with memory at the end of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.  Only we will do more. We will give thanks to the gentle hills, and raise our glasses to the light.


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