Canadian Traditions



By global standards, Canada is not a country with many flashy, folkloric traditions — which isn’t to say none exist. In general, it’s the aging process, and the various “key dates” that occur as one moves steadily from adolescence to adulthood that tend to be the most celebrated and ritualized moments in mainstream Canadian culture, with each important date home to its own rich array of customs.

Canadian traditions also tend to be closely tied to the country’s national holidays, which we discuss in more detail in that chapter. It should likewise be acknowledged that since Canada is a country of considerable diversity born from the eclectic immigrant heritage of its people, the traditions of individual Canadian families can vary greatly based on which customs they’ve decided to import from their former homeland.

Birth

Baby gifts

No one seems to know exactly why, but light blue is considered the traditional baby boy colour in Canada while light pink is the traditional colour for baby girls.

Pregnancy and childbirth is often considered an opportunity for excited celebration in Canadian culture, particularly amongst young women who may still regard pregnancy as something of novelty.

Canadian couples will generally announce their pregnancy with great pride to friends and family as soon as they’re aware, and it’s common for girlfriends of the expecting mother to organize a baby shower – a small, lighthearted house party – to honour the new mom sometime before she gives birth. Shortly after the child is born, it’s similarly customary for friends of the parents to give at least one baby gift, usually a toy or clothes, to express congratulations.

When it comes to naming the baby, it’s a relatively common (but by no means universal) Canadian tradition for children to be given names from within the family. A son might be named after his father or grandfather, for instance; a daughter for her aunt or cousin. Middle names in particular are very often chosen this way.

Birthdays

If there’s one thing Canadians really love celebrating, it’s the anniversary of their own birth. In recent years, birthdays have risen to become one of the most tradition-rich spectacles of modern Canadian culture.

Birthday cake

Along with pointy party hats, the most common birthday tradition is giving the birthday boy or girl a large cake with candles. Friends sing the special birthday song ("Happy Birthday to You"), then the birthday kid will try to blow out all the flames in one gust. It's an omen of good luck if they can!

During childhood, most parents will arrange birthday parties for their children on their special day (or the closest available weekend), a fun excuse for the birthday boy or girl to gather up all their schoolyard buddies and spend the whole afternoon hanging out. Since Canadian kids tend to be fairly spoiled these days, the organization and planning of children’s birthday parties has actually become something of a grueling and expensive assignment for many parents; parties are now often expected to include a visit somewhere entertaining, such as the bowling alley, swimming pool, or movie theatre, as well as a full meal for all the guests. But the guest’s parents are also expected to buy the birthday boy or girl a nice present in exchange, so perhaps it all evens out.

As Canadians drift into their teenage years and adulthood, they begin to assume greater control over their own birthday plans. Explicit parties become rarer, while more casual outings such as a birthday visit to a favourite restaurant or bar become more common. Gifts from friends are also usually phased out around this point, though they may continue from close family. At any age, however, it’s always important to at least acknowledge someone else’s birthday with kindness and warm wishes — even just with a Facebook post.

Graduating

Completing a phase of school in Canada is almost always celebrated with a fancy graduation ceremony.

Graduation ceremony

Grad caps are known as "mortarboards" and feature a small, dangling tassel. After being handed their diploma from the school principal or president, the official (or the grad) will sometimes move the tassel from the right side of the cap to the left to symbolize completion.

In their final year of high school (and sometimes middle school as well), students will usually celebrate the completion of their studies with some sort of party organized by the school, usually known as prom or grad night. These usually take the form of a formal dress gala held at a local hotel or banquet hall, complete with a dinner, dancing, limo rides, and lots of awkwardly-posed photographs.

The actual act of graduating is commemorated with a whole other ceremony a few days or weeks later, however, usually known as convocation. On this day, the successful students don a distinctive “cap and gown” outfit and publicly receive their diplomas in a packed auditorium full of friends and relatives. Though convocation ceremonies are common at all levels of Canadian education these days (even some kindergartens have been known to partake), the most lavish spectacles are usually performed at the university level. So-called “grad presents” from parents are increasingly expected from students these days as well, though not all families will be equally eager to indulge.

Marriage

While Canadians don’t marry as much as they used to, a legally wedded husband and wife still remains the most common living arrangement in Canada by a heavy margin, comprising over two-thirds of all “families” counted by the Canadian Census. In recognition of this fact, there is probably no single moment in any Canadian’s life more awash in ritual and ceremony than the long process of getting married.

Courtship

Wedding proposal

Some guys will really go all-out with their proposals, even staging them in public areas like the Toronto International Airport. (Click for video.)

Most Canadians will start dating members of the opposite sex in their late teenage years, usually with fun trips, activities, and other fairly structured outings. It’s no longer uncommon for Canadians to have sex while dating, though there are still taboos about going to bed too early, particularly before the third date.

If things go well, a couple may continue dating for several years and even live together for a while to further test the compatibility of their relationship. Eventually, the man will be expected to formally propose to his girlfriend, usually by giving a little speech and presenting her with a special engagement ring. Should she agree, they then enter a phase of engagement that usually lasts several months to a year as the wedding is planned. Because of the long courtship process, the average age of marriage in Canada has been steadily rising, and is now estimated at around 30 for both genders.

In the final months of engagement, the friends of the bride or groom-to-be will often organize so-called bachelor or bachelorette parties to celebrate their last months of singledom, often in a crude or raunchy way. Depending on how tasteful the friends feel like being, such parties can include strippers, pornography, heavy drinking, gambling, and erotically-themed games, or simply a somewhat more chaste “night on the town.”

Canadian Weddings

Weddings in Canada have gotten so elaborate and complicated that their planning and organization is now a multi-billion dollar industry unto itself, and surveys have shown that the average Canadian couple will spend upwards of $20,000 on their special day.

Wedding cake

Most Canadian women will legally switch their last name to their husband's following the wedding, a normally expensive privilege the government gives away for free as a perk of marriage. Some women find this tradition outdated and sexist, however, and elect to keep their so-called "maiden names" even after marriage.

To briefly summarize, most Canadians generally get married in a lavish public ceremony in a church or banquet hall, before a hundred of so of their closest friends and family members. The bride will typically wear a beautiful white wedding dress purchased especially for the ceremony, while everyone else will wear their finest formal wear. Once the gang is assembled, a legally-certified wedding officiant (administrator), usually a religious preacher or judge, will publicly lead the bride and groom through special wedding vows expressing loyalty to one another, and then proclaim them officially married. The event will then usually conclude with an equally lavish, but more relaxed wedding reception, dinner, or after-party.

In practice, of course, almost every detail of a typical Canadian wedding, from flowers to music to seating arrangements, is governed by more rules and traditions than could possibly be summarized here. Though such wedding rituals are broadly inspired by European-Christian customs, particularly British custom, North American weddings these days are often said to have evolved to exist in a world of unique tradition all their own.

Anniversaries

Canadian couples are generally expected to care a lot about the number of years they’ve been married, with the annual anniversary of their wedding date (or in some cases, engagement date) used as an opportunity for gift-giving or a special night out. Anniversaries ending in 0’s or 5’s (20 years, 45 years, etc.) are considered particularly important, and may be used as an occasion for a special vacation or the exchange of larger, more expensive gifts. For those who take tradition particularly seriously, there is even a formal anniversary gift chart dictating which presents should be bought to commemorate which milestone.

But anniversaries aren’t just for people! The Canadian obsession with round numbers usually means that that any school, club, store, restaurant, retirement home and so forth that manages to survive several decades in existence will usually proudly acknowledge its anniversaries too, often with parties, decorations, or sales.

Divorce in Canada

Canada’s once-puritanical divorce laws were greatly liberalized in 1968, and in 1986 so-called “No Fault” divorce was introduced, which basically allows married couples to dissolve their marriages at any time, for any reason, without having to first meet some government-mandated precondition, such as infidelity or abuse.

While divorce is undeniably a difficult phase for couples to go through, it has become increasingly common in Canada in recent years, and there’s no longer much of a social taboo against it as a result. Indeed, many Canadians now recite a truism that “half of all marriages end in divorce” (though the actual statistic is closer to 40%) as a reason to not be too judgemental towards those who choose the option.

That being said, divorce is still generally regarded as a private, intimate, and in many cases somewhat traumatizing experience for Canadian families — especially if there are children involved. It’s thus not something that is usually commemorated with any formal activities or ceremonies, beyond the required visit to a government administrator by the affected couple.

Death

Canadian funerals are not terribly unlike Canadian weddings — at least in the sense that they tend to be big, expensive, showy spectacles involving a lot of planning and guests.

Funeral

Black has long been the colour associated with mourning in Canada, and it's considered quite impolite to wear any other colour to a funeral.

In most Canadian families, the moment someone dies their corpse is shipped to a mortician for embalming and preparation. Once that’s done, there will usually be a viewing — where close family can quietly view the presented body in a special decorative casket — followed by a full funeral a few days after that. Depending on the religiosity of the family, funerals may be held in either a church or some manner of secular funeral parlour, and will usually feature dozens of guests who knew the deceased during life. A few short speeches, or eulogies, usually by close friends or family may be given, followed by another viewing of the body.

Burial ceremonies will usually be held a few hours after the funeral, and as the name implies, center around the ceremonial lowering of the deceased into an awaiting grave at a cemetery. In recent years, Canada has seen a tremendous spike in the popularity of cremation — where the body is burned into ashes after the funeral then buried in a small urn — but the more traditional practice of burying the full body in the full casket still remains a popular alternative. Most Canadian cemeteries are privately owned and will house dozens, or even hundreds of bodies, with graves sometimes separated by religion.

Because death can be such an unexpected thing, and funerals so rushed, the exact planning of a Canadian’s death ceremony is often either explicitly outlined in the deceased’s will, or, more commonly, simply delegated to the multi-million dollar industry of funeral planning. Like weddings, there also tends to be a great deal of multicultural diversity in funerals these days, with Canadians from Asian or Middle-Eastern backgrounds in particular often having distinct traditions and customs regarding the proper way to handle and dispose of the deceased.

General traditions

Presents

As mentioned in the etiquette chapter, Canadian gift-giving tends to be quite restrained. Some friends and families may exchange lots of expensive presents on symbolically important days like birthdays or Christmas, while others may give only small ones, or none at all. Weddings tend to be the only events in which it is absolutely expected that every single person will give a reasonably high-quality present, otherwise Canadian standards of generosity tends to be a mostly personal thing. Canadians often wrap their presents in special decorative wrapping paper, but usually only if the gift is going to be given during some sort of party.

Cards

The typical Canadians stinginess with gift-giving is offset somewhat by the massively popular tradition of giving greeting cards to friends and family on important dates. These cards, commonly sold at supermarkets and drug stores, as well as specialty card shops, are very cheap to purchase but are nevertheless considered one of most important ways to indicate you haven’t forgotten about someone else’s special day. For the particularly eager-to-please, slipping in a Canadian banknote is also fairly common.

Flowers

For those looking to give a present rich in symbolism, flowers continue to the be the Canadian gift of choice. In general, the act of giving flowers in Canada is considered a gesture of rather strong affection, usually in the context of a romantic partner or very close friend. A man may traditionally give his wife or girlfriend a bouquet of flowers as a birthday or anniversary present, for instance, or simply as a gesture of interest during the dating process. Flowers are very common decorations during weddings and funerals, and a common gift of compassion to a sick friend, but are less commonly seen on other holidays or special occasions.

A few flowers have specific symbolic meanings in Canada. Roses are very strongly associated with romantic love or interest (possibly even to a corny degree), poinsettias are a symbol of Christmas rarely seen outside the holiday, poppies are the leading symbol of war veterans and Remembrance Day, and white calla lilies are a somewhat old-fashioned symbol of death.

Luck

Canadians are not an overly superstitious people, but many may still believe in a number of strange omens of good or bad luck just in case.

Zodiac signsThirteen is considered an unlucky number and most Canadian apartments, hotels, storage units and parking lots will not have a 13th floor, locker, or stall. Friday the 13th in turn, is considered a uniformly unlucky day and people will usually avoid scheduling important events, such as weddings or plane trips, on it.

A wide variety of odd and arbitrary actions are considered unlucky as well, usually for long-forgotten reasons vaguely correlated to the Bible or fears of witchcraft. Opening an umbrella indoors, walking under a tall stepladder, accidentally knocking over a salt shaker, killing a ladybug, or having a black cat cross your path are all fairly common omens of bad luck, while finding a lone penny in the street, picking a four-leafed clover, spotting a shooting star, throwing money in a decorative fountain, or blowing a lone eyelash off your finger are considered harbingers of good luck. Obviously, some people will take these sorts of things more seriously than others, but most Canadians will still show some mild respect for luck traditions — even if only ironically or whimsically.

Many Canadians believe somewhat seriously in astrology — the pseudoscience of fortunetelling through the position of the planets — and most Canadian newspapers publish a daily horoscope column written by a certified astrologer. Knowing “your sign,” which is to say, which of the 12 astrological constellations is connected with your birthday (see chart on the right), is considered a basic tenet of self-awareness on par with knowing one’s shoe size, and it’s not uncommon for even otherwise non-superstitious people to openly relate with at least some of the personality traits tied to their astrological profile.

Links About Canadian Tradition:

Quick Facts:

  • Most of Canada's most organized, structured traditions and rituals involve commemorating important dates in someone's life.
  • Birthdays, weddings, funerals, and school graduations are commemorated with some of the most common and well-known Canadian traditions.
  • Most Canadian traditions and rituals are broadly inspired by Christian-European practice, but many are now uniquely North American.
  • Canadians are not overly superstitious, but do have a fair amount of traditions involving omens of good and bad luck.