Friday, December 3, 2010

Thanksgiving vs. Thanksgiving

Last week Thursday was a landmark day for me. I was in Canada, at the office, working away at insurance while the whole of the United States was celebrating what is arguably their most beloved holiday—Thanksgiving. This was the first time in my life that I had to go to work or school on the fourth Thursday of November. Oh, and it was also the first time in my life that I had to go to work or school on the fourth Friday in November, as I had always been fortunate enough to have jobs where I was given both Thanksgiving and the following day off from work or school.

The first two years I was in Canada, I was sure to take these days off and travel to Michigan to meet up with my family. This year, however, for various reasons, I just simply did not have enough vacation days left. Earlier this year, my parents suggested that our family rent a beach house in Florida for Christmas, and I warned them that if I was going to take off those extra days in December, I wouldn’t have enough vacation remaining to spend US Thanksgiving with them as well.

But as November got closer and eventually arrived, I started to feel the pain of this decision. In a previous post (ironically about Canadian Thanksgiving), I mentioned that one typically feels the loneliest when surrounded by others who are not lonely. Thanks to the blessings of modern technology, I now have Facebook flaunting all the fun things my friends are doing, and this was particularly trying as my friends and family in the US began posting their Thanksgiving travel plans, the benefits of a three-day work week, and their planned recipes for Thanksgiving dinner dishes. Despite our earlier agreement, my parents continued to call me weekly starting in September, asking if I would be visiting for Thanksgiving. I reminded them that I had no vacation time, and assured them, to their great disbelief, that we do not get US Thanksgiving day or the following Friday as a paid holiday in Canada.

Several of my Canadian friends, in response to my complaining about missing the big US holiday said, "Well, just make your own turkey dinner!" My response was, "Yeah, that’s easy to do on a Thursday when I’ve been at work until 5 pm. I can get home, take off my coat, and throw a turkey in the oven and get peeling potatoes!"

The day before US Thanksgiving, I was out to lunch with some friends here in Canada, and I was lamenting that I would not be able to celebrate the upcoming holiday and how hard it was for me emotionally. Their sharp rebuke? "But you’ve ALREADY had your Thanksgiving holiday!!" They were, of course, referring to Canadian Thanksgiving, which is on the second Monday in October.

I stammered, grasping for some sort of justification for my sadness, and I eventually countered with the brilliant and always appreciated, "Yes, but US Thanksgiving is better!" The dubious glances and smirks I received in return demanded a further explanation. "Really, it is the second-biggest holiday in the US, " I added. "Everyone loves it because they have time off work, spend time with their families, and there are no religious or gift-giving obligations. They can just have fun with their families."

My friend Jamie then said, "Yes, but most people HATE spending time with their extended families! They find that stressful." I thought about it for a minute and just laughed, but I realized there was more than a grain of truth in her statement.

Over the next couple of days, while I was at work trying not to think that I really shouldn’t be at work at all, my mind kept wandering back to Jamie’s statement. Do most people really dislike going to large family gatherings, and if so, why do Americans like Thanksgiving so much? And why does it seem to me to be so much more of a fun and relaxing holiday than Canadian Thanksgiving?

Granted, I have been in Canada for three Thanksgivings, but I’ve celebrated thirty-six US Thanksgivings, so obviously my take is a bit biased. But I have determined that US Thanksgiving does have more to offer as a holiday than Canadian Thanksgiving, even considering the way so many people feel about spending time with their extended families. Here are the reasons that I love and miss US Thanksgiving, including the reasons that make it more enjoyable than its Canadian counterpart.

1) Genuine tradition. Thanksgiving was started in what is now the United States. I think it’s great that the Canadians decided to pick up on the idea and make their own holiday, but really, it’s an American tradition. (Yes, I know that Canada is part of North America and Canadians could call themselves "Americans," but until the word "America" is actually part of the formal name of their country, I will mean "United States of America people" when I say "Americans" because "United Statesians" is a bit too much of a mouthful.)

2) Lack of religious obligation. I was right about this the first time. Jesus may be the reason for the season at Christmas, and the first Thanksgiving was firmly rooted in Christianity, but as a Catholic, I can assure you that Thanksgiving is not a holy day of obligation. While many churches do have services on Thanksgiving, I don’t believe any mainstream religions require attendance. I am not saying that having to go to church ruins a holiday (and I’m not saying it doesn’t), but the best holidays are those that are free of any pre-determined time commitments. This, in itself, doesn’t differentiate US from Canadian Thanksgiving, but it does help explain why Thanksgiving is as well-loved as, if not more so than, Christmas.

3) Lack of gift obligations. I was right about this as well when I was explaining my rationale to my friends. Everyone loves Christmas. Christmas is everyone’s favorite holiday. Christmas is everyone’s favorite time of year. Well, at least it is their favorite until they are in the mall at the last minute, digging through the bubble bath sets and magnetic chess games, competing with other shoppers to buy something for someone out of a feeling of obligation to get them a gift whether that recipient needs anything or not and regardless of whether the giver really wants to give a gift. No one I know gives any presents at Thanksgiving. This means that there is a major family-themed holiday without the stress of buying, wrapping, and exchanging presents.

4) Two days off work. Some people, such as those in important jobs like nurses, police, and retail clerks, do not get the day after Thanksgiving off. But, most others do. Manufacturing plants are generally closed on the Friday after, as are schools and most types of businesses. This creates a four-day weekend as opposed to the three-day weekend in Canada.

5) Fewer outdoor pressures due to the time of year. Canadians and Americans both spend a lot of time and effort indoors for Thanksgiving—preparing meals, cleaning in anticipation of guests. But, in the US and particularly in the northern climates, there is little to do outside. Usually, the leaves have all been raked, the grass has stopped growing, and it has yet to start snowing. What this means to Americans is that they can sit around and relax for four days without feeling like they really should be out raking the leaves or mowing the lawn. In Michigan, from time to time, we had to shovel the walkway if it had snowed significantly, but that was only if we were having people over.

6) No putting off the hard stuff. Canadian Thanksgiving is on a Monday, at the end of a three-day weekend. Canadians may celebrate the holiday during the weekend, but most I know actually have their family gathering and dinner on the Monday. In the US, most people have their family get-together on the Thursday. Jamie is right—many people do not like to spend so much time with their extended family purely out of familial expectations. I can definitely vouch for this, as starting from the time I was quite young, my immediate family would go away for the whole four-day weekend so as to avoid the stressful festivities with the extended family. But, even saying that, even those who do not relish rejoicing with relatives, at least it is over quickly. Wednesday you’re at work, then you go home, stop at the store, get up Thursday, start cooking, go to the family gathering, eat a giant meal, and then go home on Thursday night. Before you know it, the compulsory family requirement is over AND YOU STILL HAVE A THREE-DAY WEEKEND TO LOOK FORWARD TO!!!! In Canada, the stress of preparing the meal gets prolonged and the weekend is spent preparing for the holiday on Monday.

7) Shopportunities. Even Canadians are familiar with the joys and sorrows of Black Friday. The retail sales are usually well-publicized and worth checking out for shoppers. This Friday became black mainly because so many people have the day off, and it is the last extra day they will have off until Christmas Eve. So, what better time to shop? The beauty of Black Friday is that people who don’t want to go shopping are free to just relax at home. The meal is already over and done. Football games are on TV. There is probably not urgent yard work to do, and if there was, in most parts of the US it would be too cold anyway. And, while lounging around, one can take advantage of the many glorious leftovers from the prior day’s feast. And after Friday? There’s still a whole weekend left.

Is there anything I prefer about Canadian Thanksgiving? Well, there is one characteristic that somehow redeems it—it’s lack of proximity to Christmas. US Thanksgiving is almost always within a month of Christmas, which means that most Americans have their two biggest holidays concentrated into a five-week period. If I could move US Thanksgiving, I wouldn’t move it to October for the reason explained in number 5 above. Maybe I’d move it a bit earlier in November? Actually, I think it would be great in early March, when there is almost nothing to celebrate and Americans are in the midst of their five-month hiatus from major holidays that stretches from Jan. 1 to the last Monday in May. But then, if Thanksgiving was in March, it just wouldn’t be the same because of the traditions explained in number 1 above as well as because of the traditions that families have created themselves over the years. And for those Americans who are reading this blog, if you can’t imagine that Thanksgiving would ever be quite the same or quite as good if it was in March, then you know how it feels for me when it falls on a Monday in October.

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