Notes From A Traveler: The Traveler Visits Canada to Participate in a Somewhat Unconventional Canadian Thanksgiving

This is a house in Cornwall that supposedly was the inspiration for Manderley from the movie "Rebecca." I can't remember the source of this image.

For our purposes I’m going to refer to myself as James Madison and Better Half is going to be his Vice President, Elbridge Gerry. This is a “War of 1812” reference (for Americans). I’m also using the terms “Thanksgiving” and “Columbus Day”, which might offend but I hope not.

“Elbridge, I just got the strangest letter. You know how my mother’s parents were Canadian? No? You never knew this? Well, they were, and the wife of a distant relative has invited us up to Canada to spend Thanksgiving with them.”

“Sure. Whatever you want James. But that’s not for another two months.”

“No, it’s our Columbus Day. So it’s less than a month. I’m supposed to call to RSVP. So we’re in? We’ll have to rent a car.”

“And I’ll drive. Is it very far?”

“It’s in the Maritimes, so yes. But let’s take a week off, say a Wednesday to Wednesday, and do a little Canadian tour.”

I called the wife of this distant relative and didn’t get much intel from her except for very detailed instructions about how to get to the house and that we should dress for it.

“What does that mean?”

“How the hell would I know? I’ve never heard of these people. Just bring a suit. I think that’s what she meant. If it’s black tie, well, we’re boorish Americans, so we’ll be excused.”


We found the place and it was suspiciously like Manderley in the movie “Rebecca.” Quite baronial.

“James, maybe someone died and mentioned you in a will!”

“I doubt it. This is all very strange, but let’s see where this takes us.”

I rang the doorbell and was met at the door by a man who was some kind of live-in major-domo for this family. We were ushered into a drawing room where the whole cast was assembled and enjoying drinks. We were greeted warmly by our host and his wife. Our host, to my surprise, had a very thick Scottish accent.

Introductions all around. Elbridge got taken up by our host and another guy who was about our age. I was at the bar ordering a stiff martini alongside a woman about my age.

“So you’re James. We don’t actually know many of the family on the American side but we know about you.”

“Can I ask why that is? Because I have never heard of any of you until I got that letter from your mother.”

[Let’s call the hostess/instigator Rebecca] “Rebecca’s not my mother. Daddy’s been married three times. I’m the child of wife number 2. Your friend is talking to my husband. Or I should say Daddy’s talking at both of them. What does your friend do, by the way, if I might ask?”

“He works for [big financial institution].”

“Oh that might explain it.”

“But how me though? I have siblings. I talked to them and they’ve never heard of you either.”

“Your mother, before she died, I’m very sorry, kept up a correspondence with your great-aunt X, before she died, and your mother mentioned to X that you had moved off to glamorous New York City. X told Daddy’s father about this, it’s a long, complicated story, but Rebecca somehow found your address and now here we are.”

“Is there a point to this?”

“Yes and no. You are related by blood or by marriage to everyone in this room. That man over there is my step-brother from Daddy’s first marriage. Those two young girls are Daddy’s daughters with Rebecca.”

“So your father—“

“He lives in the middle of nowhere and has a little money, as you may have noticed. For the eligible ladies it’s basically either him or some accountant or mid-level Provincial functionary or a cod fisherman. I wish I were joking but that’s closer to the truth than I wish it were.”

“So he’s from Scotland?”

“No, of course not. But his grandparents were and they basically raised him. It’s an annoying affectation. He has kilts, bagpipes, he even bought a place in Scotland. You should go over and visit him there. That’s when he’s in his true element.”

“But what is the point of me especially being here? I do live in ‘glamorous’ New York City—“

“The spirit of cross-border international friendship I suppose. Do me a favor, go to the bar and get us refills. Be quick though, because the food’s going to come out soon.”

Food was brought into the dining room so naturally I drifted over to find my place, because Rebecca had arranged place cards for us all. 

“Wait, James, Elbridge, don’t move. Daddy is going to—here it comes.”

And Mr. De Winter played “God Save The Queen” while we stood at attention and sang along. Elbridge put his hand on his heart but I slapped it down and whispered, “This isn’t the ‘Pledge of Allegiance.’ Just do what everyone else is doing.”

“Who is the Queen of Canada?”

“I’ll explain later. Just mouth some words. I know this song so I’ll cover for you.”

At dinner I was seated to Rebecca’s right and the chatty very distant cousin was seated to my right. Elbridge was seated to the host’s right, I noticed. Someone did a little rearranging of the place cards, but for a party like this you break the couples up so everyone is forced to talk to everyone else. It also goes boy/girl/boy/girl, except the host gets to pick the guest of honor, which in this case was my very own Elbridge.

Our hostess, Rebecca, looked me in the eye and asked, “So tell me, James, do you get to Canada often?” 

“I love Canada and I’ve been a few times, mostly to Montréal and other places in Québec.”

You could have heard a pin drop. I think someone dropped their fork.

“Errr, why?”

“Montréal is the easiest drive from New York unless you live in Buffalo or near Niagara Falls, where I’ve never been, in which case Ontario is yours to explore close by. Of all of Canada Québec seems the most foreign to an American. Especially Québec City. Have you ever been?”

“No. No I haven’t.”

“You should go. It’s really fun. It’s like a small northwestern French city transplanted across the Atlantic.”

That distant martini-swilling cousin to my right added, “Why don’t you bring up the Plains of Abraham while you’re at it. I’m sure you’ve been.”

The rest of the dinner went well. After dinner we withdrew to card room, of course this pile had one, and played a card game I’d never played before: whist. This is a very old precursor to bridge. I was teamed with the chatty cousin and we won round after round. Card counting seemed to be in her very blood.

We all turned in early, all that food and liquor and wine. Rebecca, who again had never met us before, somehow knew that Elbridge and I were a couple so she gave us a guest bedroom (there were several) with a super-luxe king bed with sheets, a fluffy duvet, and pillows without number. It also had an en-suite bathroom, and someone had unpacked what we had brought with us.

As we settled into bed, Elbridge asked me, “So who is the Queen of Canada?”

“QEII. Now go to sleep. I don’t think I can talk anymore. BUT we will talk about all of this when we drive out of here.”



  1. I think a lot of Anglo Canadians view French Canadians a lot like rich Manhattanites view New Jersey Italian Americans — uncouth, mobbed up descendants of a culture they prostrate themselves before.

    • Depends on the area.  I grew up in mostly rural Ontario so there is a strong loyalist streak there among the anglos who both resent Yanks and French in sort of equal amounts which I figure is somewhat similar to the Maritimers.

      Urbane Ontario (read Toronto) there is much less of that disdain because of the large number of immigrants who feel like outsiders or keep to their own traditions of who they hate.



  2. My grandfather on my father’s side, born in the 1880s or 1870s, I forget), was  French Canadian logger.

    • There’s a post-script to this story. At breakfast the next morning (everyone stayed over) Rebecca said she was sad that Elbridge and I had to rush off. But could we at least stay through lunch? And in exchange she had a favor to ask.

      After breakfast, we went into her study, of course she had her own, and unrolled this massive—it was like architectural blueprints. It was her secret project: she was compiling Mr. deWinter’s family tree. This partly explains my summons.

      So we sat side by side and she traced her finger down through the lines and said, “that’s where you should be. Can you help me fill this in?”

      So I told her about my parents, and my mother’s siblings and their spouses, and everyone’s children, and those children’s children. It was then that I confessed that one of the reasons I spent so much time in Québéc was that on my father’s side, through marriage, there are a lot of French Canadians, and those I actually keep in touch with, and Montréal is only about six-hour drive from New York.

      “Oh, so you have a perfectly reasonable excuse–I mean explanation, reason…”

  3. Our Turkey day is pretty much the same as yours minus Black Friday and the endless hours of footbawl.

    My Korean family took up the Canada white people’s tradition because it is the same time as the Korean Traditional Harvest Moon so they had no issues with it.

    Family angst and resentment feels the same.  In my family’s version of Thanksgiving, for about 2 decades it seemed my dad would do his best version of Frank Constanza and have Festivus (well the airing of grievances and the odd throwing of plates.)  So the tension boiled over and exploded.  I began to really loathe the holiday and tried to find excuses not to go home (when in university) but couldn’t (mom guilted me.)

    For about 3 decades we ate Turkey like the rest of you, but it stopped when one dinner when we weren’t yelling and screaming at each other and I asked why no one ate the white Turkey meat?  Drumsticks, wings and thighs sure, but the breast no one touched.  Also because I was sick of getting stuck with the leftover turkey meat that no one else in my family wanted.  I whined “Can we not have turkey next year?”

    My mom hated cooking Turkey so she was on board.  Next thing you know, next year we had duck.  Then roast beef.   Then Ham.  Next Smoked salmon. Then steak or something not avian.  Even poached salmon.  Strangely the family tension and airing of grievances started to disappear and it became a holiday I tolerated instead of hate.  I’d like to blame it all on the Turkey, but it was coincidence.

    Soon the traditional dishes of mashed potatoes and stuffing were replaced with Korean food and smaller quantities.  About the only hold over from Thanksgivings past we still do is the apple, blueberry and pumpkin pies (even then we have to get pies with gluten free crusts because my sister is mildly allergic to it.)

    • @ManchuCandidate your story warmed my half-asian heart. Bittersweet that it took decades for your culture to break through the white tradition.

      • My parents wanted to give us the full Canadian Thanksgiving experience.  Assimilate and all that.  They did (including the family fights.)

        We usually didn’t have turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes etc except during the holidays so I get why we had it for 2-3 decades, but in the end we show our roots.  I prefer the non traditional Thanksgiving food anyway.

    • @MatthewCrawley did you ever go back? I was sensing some Get Out/Ready Or Not vibes… maybe I’m just in the Halloween spirit 😉

      • I didn’t have a chance, much as I wanted to, but the chatty cousin and her husband (and eventually their three children) came to New York a few times and I would take them around. We’ve kind of lost touch but now that the border is somewhat open, but that wavers back and forth, I should try to re-establish contact. I forget how but the chatty cousin moved to Toronto, where she met her husband, and they did very well for themselves, so they left Manderley behind.

    • Every damn family holiday when I was growing up, we had ham. Easter, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, News Years. I think being Midwestern Catholics we had no other option except to have ham ham ham ham ham. And turkey, too, on Thanksgiving.


      • A long time ago, probably in the early days of Christianity itself, I read a really interesting article about how groups use food to assert and define their identities. Since Christianity is an off-shoot of Judaism, Christians wanted a way to express that they were not Jewish. Jewish people don’t eat pork? We will eat all the pork. According to the article that’s why ham is so prevalent at holiday dinner tables in Christian households, at least in America.

        • @matthewcrawley, adding to that is that there is soooo much pork raised around Missouri that ham has always been relatively cheap and it stores well for several days.

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