Remind me: What's the point of Canadian Thanksgiving? Apart from the obvious, there doesn't appear to be one. Yes, yes, we're supposed to be grateful and eat dinner in the presence of family members, but isn't that sort of a weak excuse for a holiday? Do we really need all the TV commercials and hype and ugly orange construction-paper decorations to remind us to do something we ought to be doing on a regular basis anyway? At least the American occasion is based on some sort of mythical historical event, vague as it is. You know the story: The Pilgrims had a civilized little harvest luncheon with the Indians before the rampage of stealing and slaughtering began. It's a dubious tradition, but at least it's based on something other than the mass consumption of cheap poultry and canned pumpkin guts.
Whatever the reason, Thanksgiving is just not a particularly convincing holiday in our country. It's as if we're all going through the motions without any of the feeling. Americans get emotionally patriotic over the whole thing (just think of those "holiday special" sitcoms that inevitably centre around the gripping plot question of "Will all the kids make it home in time for Mom's turkey?"). Canadians, on the other hand, tend to be downright blasé. In fact, many Canadians simply skip Thanksgiving altogether. A Jewish girlfriend of mine recently asked me, with some distain, "what the point" of Thanksgiving was. (Her family had never celebrated it and, like many non-WASPs, she found the whole exercise absurd.)
"Oh, I don't know, it's just a holiday," I snapped. "I mean, what's the point of Yom Kippur?"
"It marks the beginning of the New Year according to the ancient Hebraic calendar."
"Oh." I was silent for a moment. "Well, um, maybe it's just a thing people do. On the second Monday of October, we eat soggy breadcrumbs and cranberry sauce. Maybe we don't need a reason for everything, okay?"
Despite my impassioned cultural defence, I hung up the phone feeling that she was right. I had suspected it all along. The whole thing is pointless.
And then I remembered the Turkey Dump. Ha! A reason for Thanksgiving at last. While not everyone eats turkey at Thanksgiving, the Turkey Dump is a time-honoured tradition widely observed among first-year university students of all religious and cultural backgrounds across the country. Every year, thousands of Canadian students arrive on campus still romantically attached to their high-school sweethearts. By the end of Frosh Week, their lives have changed dramatically. Six weeks later -- just in time for Thanksgiving weekend -- it's time to cut the old flame loose. Hence the Turkey Dump.
One male colleague of mine admitted sheepishly that he was guilty of the dirty deed. After returning home to Toronto for Thanksgiving from his first year at Queen's University in Kingston, he gave his high-school girlfriend her walking papers.
"I remember it as a time when the old relationship suddenly seems very old," he said. "It's only a couple of months, but you've moved on. You've changed. There's been a divergence of interests." He sighed and hung his head. "Basically, you've gone away and become a cocky jerk."
There is a great deal of guilt attached to the Turkey Dump, even years after the event itself has passed. For many, the thought of cruelly ditching the faithful hometown holdout can bring back painful memories of what a callous cad you used to be. When I inquired after one male friend's past experience with the Turkey Dump, he sent back this self-loathing reply: "The Turkey Dumper was me. Broke her heart. I had a hickey the size of Kansas on my neck. Some weird vamp in the girl's dorm got me. God, I was idiot then . . ."
Sad as it may be, the Turkey Dump is important. Ashley Morton, president of the student union at the University of Toronto, calls it "a true rite of passage."
"When you're in the last year of high school, you're at the end of something. When you're in first year university, you're beginning something," he said. Clearing the deck just makes sense.
Even my girlfriend who failed to see the point in Thanksgiving was familiar with the cultural importance of the Turkey Dump.
"You can't really break up with someone before you start university -- it's too scary," she said. "You need that buffer period. From the beginning of the year to the long weekend is just enough time to know that you've grown and matured. A few weeks is a long time in first-year university. If you let the relationship last until Christmas, you're practically engaged."
Suddenly the reason for a long weekend smack in the middle of October became clear to her.
"Now I get it," she said. "You eat the turkey, you start fresh."
The Turkey Dump -- quite possibly the real reason for Canadian Thanksgiving. You heard it here first.