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The smell of turkey was unmistakable. Students were piling up platefuls of mashed potatoes and cranberry stuffing, going for second and third servings of pumpkin pie. It was a classic Thanksgiving feast. In October.
To the outside observer, the gathering, held earlier this week in Annenberg and organized by the Harvard Canadian Club, might have seemed like a premature celebration of Turkey Day. But the celebrating students weren’t confused—they were Canadian.
For the past decade, Canadians have been the largest international contingent at Harvard, making up roughly 20 percent of the College’s international students.
Occasionally teased for their national obsession with hockey and sometimes mocked for the way they pronounce words like “out” and “about,” many of Harvard’s Canadians say their celebration of Thanksgiving reveals deeper cultural and political differences that exist between the neighboring countries.
A ‘MORE HONEST’ HOLIDAY?
Differences aside, more than just turkey connects the two holidays.
“When people ask what Canadian Thanksgiving is, I tell them it’s the same idea,” said Sisi Pan ’11 from Edmonton, Alberta. “Canadian Thanksgiving came first, actually.”
The first formal Thanksgiving ceremony in Canada was held by the explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578, 43 years before the celebrations by settlers in Plymouth, Mass. in 1621. Both holidays commemorate the end of the harvest season.
“We have it earlier since it’s colder back home,” Pan added.
The two Thanksgivings have historically been religious observances, though both are now regarded as secular.
Yet even if the holidays seem topically similar, the way in which they are viewed differs.
“I had no idea that Thanksgiving was such a huge holiday here,” said Professor of Chinese History Michael Szonyi, a Torontonian at the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. “In Canada, it’s just about eating... Our holidays are much more honest.”
Psychology Professor Steven Pinker agreed that Americans place more emphasis on Thanksgiving.
“When I was younger, it was a day off school,” said Pinker, a native of Montreal.
TURKEY AND POLITICS
The varying degree of emphasis placed on Thanksgiving reveals differences in larger issues of public discourse between Canada and America, according to a number of Canadian Harvard professors.
“Thanksgiving is a central part of the civic religion [in America]; a feast of almost political proportions, whereas Canadian Thanksgiving is a more modest family affair,” said European Studies Professor Peter A. Hall.
This view was echoed by many Canadians on campus.
“I sort of envy that people are so involved in politics here,” said Torontonian Yuying Luo ’12. “If you take a look at our politics, I can’t remember the last time we had anything big happen.”
“Back home, my friends and I never talk about politics,” said Alex H. Housser ’12, of Victoria, British Columbia.
But Americans have recently engaged more Canadians in their political conversation, considering the health care debate now raging in Congress.
“It’s assumed that I’m an expert on the topic,” said Professor Szonyi. “That by being Canadian, I have a political position.”
“With respect to policies like health care, Americans could learn a lot from the Canadian experience but they rarely know very much about it,” Professor Hall said.
The festivities earlier this week did not go unnoticed in the rest of Annenberg.
During dinner, about 30 students gathered behind a Canadian flag displayed over the balcony in Annenberg and sang the national anthem ‘O Canada’ in both English and French.
“Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!” they shouted to the curious patrons cheering below.
Polina Krass ’11, the prime minister of the Canadian Club, said she was really happy to continue the tradition of the Canadian Thanksgiving dinner. “I was really excited about the number of people who showed up,” she said.
As the Canadians chattered over the meal, patrons eating below looked on with an air of amusement and confusion.
Most people interviewed surmised that it was some sort of Canadian event, but only a handful were aware of the occasion or the nature of the holiday.
“I knew it was Canadian Thanksgiving because it was on my calendar,” said Nora S. Abo-Sido ’13. “Other than that, I don’t know much about it.”
Though not entirely representative of the whole Harvard community, this general unawareness does hint at an unfamiliarity with Canadian culture that Canadian students say they have encountered among Harvard undergrads.
“I actually had someone tell me that my English was really good in my freshman year,” Hayley Margio ’10 of Halifax, Nova Scotia recalled.
“I don’t think people are as curious about Canada as they are about other countries,” said Amy Wang ’12. “People assume that I can speak French; so when I started French A, they had that puzzled expression on their face.”
Most of the Canadians interviewed expressed that their experiences of being stereotyped have made them more self-conscious of their nationality.
“[Since I’ve come to Harvard,] I’ve cut down from saying ‘eh’ every other sentence to maybe twice an hour,” said Rylie X. Zhang ’13 of Toronto.
But these differences seem to render Harvard’s Canadian community more patriotic about their nation. “Being in a different culture forces you to think about what you believe in as a Canadian,” said Torontonian Peter S. Grbac ’12.
“I’m very proud of my country,” said Jonathan K. Tam ’10, another Torontonian. “It symbolizes home to me... the sense of belonging, the sense that I want to go back after I graduate.”
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