By: Santiago Eastman
Photo Credits: Unsplash
Thanksgiving is a bit of a mixed bag for me. Coming from the US, I’m used to the holiday making a grand entrance at the end of November, but here in Canada, it almost seems to sneak by midway through October. October for me is already crowded. It’s the start of sweater weather, of beautiful new foliage, of discounted candy and evangelicals warning about invisible threats to children. It’s about listening to my family complain about all the birthdays we have to celebrate, but nonetheless, making each one a huge party. November, meanwhile, should be all about Thanksgiving.
Even after six years in Canada, it’s been a challenge to shake off the American influence on how I view things. Thanksgiving serves as a reminder of how different things are here. The holiday, along with the sun setting at like four in the afternoon, makes me susceptible to ridiculous things like reminiscing and feeling nostalgic.
When I first moved here, there were long periods of running around and getting paperwork done. Once the dust settled, those were followed by even longer stretches of waiting while the red tape of bureaucracy slithered its lethargic hands from office to office. Specifically, while I waited to be processed, I had more free time than I had had in years. And so, I read. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller in particular is one of those books that has stayed with me. It always seems in the back of my head—to the point where I’m reminded of Yossarian and his litany of insane airmen every time there’s a heat wave in August. But first, Thanksgiving.
In the US, Thanksgiving is taken very seriously. In the last week of November, children get at least half the week off; family members fly in from all corners of the country; massive feasts are prepped and cooked and slaved over; and homecoming celebrations and dances enter their final forms. The entire month in a way becomes a frenzy of red, orange, and yellow as people replace gray tombstones with enlarged pumpkins (but leave the scarecrows on the front lawn). In New York, the Macy’s Day Parade gets televised nationwide, and large corporations everywhere cause mass hysteria with Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. For most of my life, I was used to big events happening all around me as the season turned, and so seeing the difference in Canada has me feeling off-kilter.
Nobody seems to celebrate Thanksgiving here. Maybe my sample size is limited because I only spoke to Quebecers, but every time I ask someone here what they’re doing for la journée de grâce, they’ll just shrug and say, “Not much.” Coming from a Hispanic background, I’m in the unique position of understanding that Thanksgiving is a very American cultural event, which only made my initial confusion that much more intense. While in the US, my family celebrated Thanksgiving (we’re always looking for a reason to bring family together). Once we moved here, however, we had to start asking new questions. Do we celebrate on the Canadian-appointed day? Do we still bring out the turkey at the end of November? Do we continue to celebrate the day at all?
South Americans (outside of the US and Puerto Rico, I think) don’t recognize the holiday. Unlike Americans, who had it made a national holiday by none other than grand-slammin’ grandmaster George Washington (“History of Thanksgiving”), Hispanics have a very different relationship to our period of colonization. (Not to mention, my birth city’s definition of the seasonal transition is going from 25°C to 20, so celebrating fall seems silly.) I felt like an outsider my entire time in the US, but Thanksgiving was one way my family assimilated into our new home. We may not have been natural-born Americans, but even we still had plenty to be thankful for.
We therefore found ourselves in a paradox: We weren't American, but still celebrated Thanksgiving. To then come here and not celebrate would mean we're Canadian but we weren't yet, and we also weren't American, so should we still celebrate? How could we consider ourselves Americans if we don’t celebrate it even though we aren’t Americans anymore? The more we thought about it, the more we went in circles until we drove each other crazy. So, we did the only rational thing: make some turkey and eat.
In many ways, Catch-22 encapsulated a lot of the insanity we felt as we transitioned between countries. In the novel, Yossarian is stuck in a war he doesn’t want to fight but has no way of leaving. Every time he tries to convince someone to help him out, they turn around and make it more difficult (and confusing) for everyone else. As the war drags on, only small victories offset the intensifying feeling of helplessness due to forces out of his control. Joseph Heller sums it up best:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
‘That's some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed.
‘It's the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.”
All this uncertainty made me start questioning the other holidays. What’s more important: celebrating a day because it’s a national holiday and it’s just what one does, or doing it willingly because it’s meaningful? For many, getting the day off is enough. For others, even if they’re on the other side of a continent from their loved ones, getting to say hi over WhatsApp is valuable.
What my family ultimately decided was that the problem didn’t really matter. There are plenty of Americans who don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. For us, it was always more about getting together with family and eating good food than it was about fighting over which cousins brought mashed potatoes and which were doing something with their lives. (I mean, we do that anyway, so no loss there.) What I, in particular, had forgotten my first fall in Montreal was that we always celebrated in our own way anyway. Right next to that turkey was always a heaping pile of empanadas and buñealos—all while we listened to my parents’ favorite Salsa music. Only we get to decide how we spend our holidays, not some invisible, made-up force created by nonsensical societal customs that don’t apply to us anyway. Even though we’re no longer in the States and we’re far from the rest of our family, it means a lot to us to be able to all gather and eat good food. (I also don’t get the day off work in Quebec regardless, so the decision is pretty easy for me.)
My family’s experiences living in three different countries means that we get a special blend of three distinct cultures instead of one—and that makes for a pretty good meal overall.
Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. Vintage, 2011.
“Thanksgiving 2023 - Tradition, Origins & Meaning.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving