October 18, 2013

Canadian Thanksgiving vs. Halloween

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch

---- — Last weekend, I was listening to satellite radio in the car coming back from dropping off the kid at university after the Thanksgiving holiday. On this one U.S.-based talk show a couple of dudes were jawing about Canadian Thanksgiving and drawing up a list of the top three Canadians they were thankful for — when I left off, that trio comprised Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox and Pamela Anderson (surprisingly, no mention of just-announced Nobel Prize laureate for literature, Alice Munro).

The radio guys were puzzled about the meaning of Canadian Thanksgiving and asked listeners north of the border to call in and shed some light on the fall holiday, hoser-style. “Do you eat roast beaver with maple syrup?” one asked.

As far as I know, and certainly in my heartland-based family’s experience, most Canadians share with Americans the choice of the principal Thanksgiving dish — the traditional roast turkey with all the trimmings, followed by pumpkin pie, of course. But the parallels pretty well stop there.

There is no comparable bonding fable between Pilgrims and natives, though one might suggest that the mutual pact of survival between English, French and natives in the wake of the battle of Quebec in the winter of 1759 might serve as some kind of inspiration for giving thanks, but it’s never happened.

In reality, Canadian Thanksgiving is a statutory holiday timed to roughly coincide with the end of the harvest season, which up north comes several weeks before farmers in more temperate America haul in the hay. Hence, for Canadians, it’s literally an opportunity to give thanks for the blessings of the earth, of family and whatever else good is going on, before the cold and snow set in.

Halloween, though, especially in Quebec, is another story. Whereas one will be hard-pressed to find much Thanksgiving commercial promotion, Halloween is hyped to the hilt. Big retailers start moving Halloween costumes onto the floor at the end of August, with skeletons and jack o’lanterns competing for shelf space with back-to-school supplies.

The popularity of Halloween in Quebec, according to prevailing theories of social anthropology, can be traced to the rapid secularization of the province over the past 50 odd years. Since its founding by Champlain 405 years ago, the Roman Catholic church has dominated life in Quebec, running hospitals, schools and social services, and having a powerful influence on politics.

Starting in the 1960s, though, the state stripped the church of its omnipresent status and, thus liberated from the grip of the bishops, Quebecers abandoned their church-going habits with stunning rapidity.

In the past 10 years alone, according to a report on religious heritage in Quebec, some 319 churches in the province have closed their doors, 49 in the last year.

Into the vacuum of spirituality, say the sociologists, slipped the hocus-pocus, ghoul-fearing, pagan-worshiping Halloween celebration. All that residual dread of the wages of sin and the fires of hell bred into Quebecers over the centuries has found sustenance in the trappings of Halloween.

There is a certain subtle irony in the surge in popularity of zombies, vampires, ghosts and skeletons at a time when Quebec, led by the Parti Quebecois government, is in the midst of a debate over state secularism.

The government has proposed a charter of Quebec values that would, among other things, ban Quebec public or para-public employees from wearing conspicuous religious symbols on the job, such as hijabs, turbans, kippahs or crucifixes.

The charter has its passionate supporters and opponents and could very well be one of the central issues in an election, which rumour has it the minority government of Pauline Marois may call in the next few weeks for early December.

In the meantime, one can safely predict that, knowing Quebecers’ penchant for social satire, some of the more popular Halloween costumes this year will take conspicuous religious symbols as a theme: vampires with kippahs, zombies in niqabs, skeletons in turbans and the like.

Like Thanksgiving in America and the Plymouth feast, Halloween in Quebec has its own mythic connection with the past.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at