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Canadian Traditions and Celebrations

By the standards of some parts of the world, Canada is not a country with a lot of particularly flashy folk traditions — which isn’t to say none exist. In general, it’s the aging process, and the various “key dates” that occur as a Canadian moves 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 various holidays, which are discussed in more detail in that chapter. It should similarly be noted 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.

Births

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 visit and give at least one baby gift, usually a toy or clothes, to express congratulations.

When it comes to naming 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 uncle, for instance; a daughter for her sister or grandmother. Middle names, which most Canadians have, are very often chosen this way. Children usually take the last name of their father. If children are born to parents who aren’t married, or simply don’t use the same last name (see marriage traditions, below), they’ll sometimes be given a hyphenated last name combining the names of both parents, for example, “Martin-Jones.”

Canadian Birthdays

If there’s one thing Canadians 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 contemporary Canadian culture.

During childhood, most parents will arrange birthday parties for their children on the 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 afternoon hanging out. Since Canadian kids tend to be fairly spoiled these days, the organization and planning of children’s birthday parties can often be a rather grueling and expensive chore 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. The guest’s parents, in turn, are expected to buy the birthday boy or girl a nice present in exchange.

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 text message or Facebook post.

Graduating from School

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

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 fancy 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 in a whole other ceremony a few days or weeks later, usually called convocation. On this day, the successful students don a distinctive “cap and gown” outfit and publicly receive rolled diplomas certifying their graduation from the head of the school before a packed auditorium full of friends and parents. 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 college or university level. Graduation presents from parents are increasingly expected from students these days as well, though not all families will be equally eager to indulge.

Love and 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.

Dating and Courtship

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 considered controversial 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 a bachelor or bachelorette party 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.”

A happy couple cutting their wedding cake.
Myronovych/Shutterstock

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. Surveys have shown that the average Canadian couple will spend upwards of $30,000 on their special day, while wedding guests will spend close to $700 each on gifts, special clothes, and other related expenses.

To briefly summarize, most Canadians generally get married in a lavish public ceremony in a church or banquet hall before about a hundred or so close 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 leader 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 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. Canadians from non-Christian or non-European backgrounds often have unique wedding customs, though these are often fused to varying degrees with North American ones.

Anniversaries

Canadian couples are expected to closely follow 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, exchange of larger, more expensive gifts, or even an anniversary party. For those who take tradition particularly seriously, there is even a formal anniversary gift chart dictating which sort of presents should be bought to commemorate which milestone.

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

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.

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 look at 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 feature dozens of guests who knew the deceased during life. A few short speeches, or eulogies,  by close friends or family may be given, followed by another processional viewing of the body.

Burial ceremonies will usually be held a few hours after the funeral. As the name implies, these centre 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 — as a cheaper, and some say more tasteful, alternative to burying the body in a full casket. 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 agents of the multi-million dollar funeral planning industry. Like weddings, there also tends to be a great deal of multicultural diversity in funerals stemming from different religious customs. Canadians from Asian or Middle Eastern backgrounds in particular often having distinct traditions regarding the proper way to handle and dispose of the deceased.

General Canadian Traditions

Presents

As mentioned in the manners and 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 tend 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 the most important ways to indicate you haven’t forgotten about someone else’s special day. If the card’s from a family members, it main contain a banknote as well.

Flowers

For those looking to give a present rich in symbolism, flowers continue to be the Canadian gift of choice. In general, the act of giving flowers in Canada is considered a gesture of 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 dating. 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 meaning in Canada. Roses are very strongly associated with romantic love, particularly on Valentine’s Day, poinsettias are a symbol of Christmas rarely seen outside the holiday, poppies are a symbol of war veterans and Remembrance Day, and white calla lilies are a somewhat old-fashioned symbol of death.

Canadian Luck Traditions

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.

Thirteen 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. Christians associate the number 666 with Satan, while many Asian-Canadians associate the number four with death.

A wide variety of odd and arbitrary actions are considered unlucky as well, usually for long-forgotten reasons vaguely connected to the Bible or fears of witchcraft. Opening an umbrella indoors, walking under an open ladder, 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.

Astrology

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, 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.

Aquarius

The Water-bearer

January 20 - February 18

Pisces

The Fish

February 19 - March 20

Aries

The Ram

March 21 - April 19

Taurus

The Bull

April 20 - May 20

Gemini

The Twins

May 21 - June 20

Cancer

The Crab

June 21 - July 22

Leo

The Lion

July 23 - August 22

Virgo

The Virgin

August 23 - September 22

Libra

The Scale

September 23 - October 22

Scorpio

The Scorpion

October 23 - November 21

Sagittarius

The Archer

November 22 - December 21

Capricorn

The Goat

December 22 - January 19

More About Canadian Traditions