On being ... remembered

By Ingrid Sapona

November has always been special to me. Growing up in the States, November meant Thanksgiving, which was my favourite holiday. I love the idea of giving thanks and, of course, gathering for a feast. I also love the fact that it’s celebrated by everyone in the U.S. in much the same way. As American readers know, it goes without saying I’m talking about turkey with all the trimmings. And the quirk of it being on a Thursday helps make it special too, I think. (Monday holidays always seem more about having a long weekend than celebrating a particular event.)

It wasn’t until I moved to Canada that I realized the extent to which Thanksgiving is part of the American culture and psyche. I’m not just talking about school children across the country drawing or colouring in turkeys and pilgrims, or every magazine featuring recipes for stuffing or pumpkin pie. Every damned t.v. show has a storyline about going home for Thanksgiving -- it’s enough to make anyone homesick!

“Canadian Thanksgiving” is also meant to mark the end of the harvest and to give thanks for the bounty of the land. But Thanksgiving isn’t as big a deal here as it is in the U.S. For example, though the holiday is officially on the second Monday in October, people celebrate on whatever day that weekend they feel like. And, if this laissez-faire attitude about when they have Thanksgiving dinner isn’t odd enough -- they’re also flexible about what they eat! I don’t just mean there are vegetarian options -- some folks make ham, some do turkey, some eat lamb, etc., and they often vary from year to year. Go figure…

Despite the fact that for me November is no longer synonymous with Thanksgiving, there’s a day we observe here that I find very moving: November 11th -- Remembrance Day. Though it’s Veterans Day in the U.S. -- a federal holiday -- for most Americans, the observance of Veterans Day is trivial by comparison to Remembrance Day here. For example, Remembrance Day is never referred to as a “holiday” -- not just because it’s a regular work day in some provinces (like Ontario) -- but because it’s seen as a solemn day to honour the sacrifices of those who died serving the country. The theme of the day is “lest we forget”.

Canadians, as a group, seem to know a lot more about World War I than Americans and I think that’s because of the rituals related to Remembrance Day. Pretty much every Canadian can tell you the date marks the official end of fighting on the western front in World War I, which happened in 1918 “at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month”.

Unlike Veterans Day, there’s a widely-respected symbol for Remembrance Day: the red poppy. The first year I lived here I had no idea why, starting about November 1st, old folks (men, mostly) stood on corners selling red poppy pins and why nearly every person wore one. I soon found out the poppy sellers were veterans and the proceeds went to charities that support them.

I also learned the symbol’s significance: the proliferation of poppies that emerged from the disturbed earth of the battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders, and the famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, which was penned by a Canadian. I don’t know how old Canadians are when they learn it -- but pretty much everyone can recite at least the opening of the stirring poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row …

Two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. is another Remembrance Day tradition marked across the country -- and not just at formal ceremonies in cemeteries and at cenotaphs. My second or third year living here my sister was visiting and we happened to be in the Art Gallery of Ontario on November 11th. Just before 11 o’clock there was an announcement over the P.A. asking for silence. Everyone stopped right where they were. My sister was surprised when I told her that happens in workplaces, schools, and even on radio stations everywhere.

These days there are fewer veterans selling poppies, but they’re available at banks and coffee shops. And, sadly, a friend reported that her office didn’t observe a moment of silence this year. But something I saw on t.v. a few days before the 11th gives me hope the stirring tradition will continue: Rick Mercer, a popular, hip, comedian, did a commentary about Remembrance Day on his show. For those familiar with Mercer’s show, it was the topic of “The Rant”.)

In his commentary, Mercer said that last year he almost forgot Remembrance Day. Apparently the significance of the day dawned on him a couple minutes before 11 a.m. as he sat getting a hair cut. When he realized no one there was going to observe a moment of silence, he went outside and marked the occasion by himself. On his return, the stylist asked if he had gone out for a cigarette -- he set her straight.

At the end of the Rant, Mercer suggested viewers set the alarm on their cell phone (or ask their kids to do it for them, if they don’t know how to) so they remember to pause at 11 o’clock on Remembrance Day. Great idea, don’t you think? Though I often blame techno gadgets for fostering mindlessness, clearly they can also help us reconnect to things that matter -- even if we just use them to remind us to stop to remember.

As it happens, since 2005, November 11th has special significance for our family -- it’s the day my father died. So, though the month is tinged with sadness for me, I still love November because my heart carries the true meaning of thanksgiving and remembrance.

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


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