In search of a fall feast

In search of a fall feast

The Thanksgiving leftovers are long gone by now, with perhaps some turkey stock gathering frost in the freezer. Yet, despite the abundance of food served up from the bountiful harvest, Canadian Thanksgiving seems somewhat unfulfilling, at least compared to the American Thanksgiving coming up shortly.

Down south Thanksgiving is all about turkey cultism, non-stop football, the college homecoming, all laid upon the foundation of the stirring – though apocryphal – tale of the first Pilgrims’ harvest, shared with their new native friends. Add to this festive recipe, a heaping helping of  “Black Friday” commercialism.

By contrast, Canadian Thanksgiving is a holiday in search of a myth.  It’s really a statutory day off, marking the seasonal transition, from the waning summer to the arrival of winter’s cold and snow. You could even make the case that in Quebec Halloween has begun to rival Christmas as an occasion for celebration and commercial exploitation.

There are, however, a couple of viable, yet ignored options for an historical event upon which Canada could build a Thanksgiving-like celebration.

Samuel_de_ChamplainThe first one that comes to mind is inspired by Samuel de Champlain, without whom, one might venture, there would be no Canada as we know it.

It was Champlain who founded the Ordre de Bon Temps in Port Royal, Nova Scotia, on Nov. 14, 1606, to boost spirits and help colonists and local natives get through the long Canadian winter.

The idea was that members of the order took turns providing a feast for the others, a convivial competition that kept settlers motivated and well fed. They also organized theatre productions, from which sprung the modern Neptune Theatre, based in Halifax.

The celebration never caught on as a universal Thanksgiving notion, although apparently a group in Nova Scotia carries on the tradition with a feast each year.

Another candidate might be called the Misery Knows Company festival, which takes as its inspiration the woeful situation in Quebec in the fall of 1759.

Shelves of books and articles have been written about September 13, 1759, when the British army captured Quebec. But what about the weeks that followed as the cold weather set in and the British fleet fled to avoid being held prisoner by the St. Lawrence River ice.

Left behind in the rubble of a settlement subjected to relentless bombardment for months, were some 10,000 souls in need of warmth and sustenance. British troops, Canadian townspeople, dozens of nuns, French soldiers, local natives, all had to find a way to survive in what has been described as a particularly cold and snowbound winter.

Examples of kindness are well-documented. Most famously are the accounts of how hardy 78th Highlanders would chop and supply firewood for the Ursuline nuns. In return, the nuns knitted woollen socks for the soldiers whose kilts were plainly unsuited for the brutal cold (nor for the nuns’ modest eyes).

Once the spring arrived, however, it was bellicose business as usual, between French and English combatants. But in that miserable, miraculous winter of 1759-60, one might say the foundation of the Canadian nation was laid.

Categories: News, Opinion

About Author

Peter Black

For years Peter Black was the producer of Breakaway, on CBC Radio One in Quebec City. Before arriving in Quebec City in the 1990s, he lived and worked in Ottawa and Montreal. Peter is married and has two sons.

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