What the French find strange about Canadian & American Thanksgiving

From traditional dishes to table manners and customs, here is what a French person might find strange, unexpected or surprising about a North American Thanksgiving.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
what French people might find strange about an American Thankgsgiving
what French people might find strange about an American Thankgsgiving

Although you can trace the roots of Thanksgiving back to the ancient European harvest festival of the old world, it’s not a traditional French holiday and somewhat of a mystery to French people.

It’s not their fault.

What little they know, they learned from watching dubbed American movies and TV series like “Friends.”

TV shows like Friends teach French people about American customs.

I’m not sure many French people even realize that Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada.

  • Canadian Thanksgiving: celebrated on the 2nd Monday of October in Canada. It can be traced back to an English explorer named Martin Frobisher, who held a thanksgiving ceremony in 1578 to give thanks for surviving his journey.
  • American Thanksgiving: celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November in the United States. It traces its roots to the Pilgrims who arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. The Pilgrims held a feast in 1621 to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and survival in the New World.

Thanksgiving Traditions French People Might Find Weird

Here’s what and why French people are so confused about Thanksgiving

1. Saying grace before diner

Saying Grace before dinner might be a little strange to a French person

I know that not all families say grace before a meal, but it seems to be much more commonplace for families in the U.S. and Canada to say a prayer of thanks before their Thanksgiving meal.

While France has a rich history of religious traditions, saying grace before a meal is no longer deeply ingrained in French dining customs anymore.

France has undergone a  lot of secularization over the years, and the influence of religion on daily practices, including mealtime rituals, has diminished. 

2. Thanksgiving meal starts too early

I think it’s safe to say that many people celebrate the Thanksgiving dinner anywhere between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., which is very early to a French person.

French dining hours are much stricter than in North America, especially for holiday meals.

You eat lunch at noon, maybe an apero around 6 or 7 p.m., and eat dinner after 7:30 p.m., which is still on the early side.

3. Pumpkin pie is not a thing in France

Thanksgiving Pumpkin pie

France is known for its wide range of pastries, pies and tarts. However, the concept of eating a sweet pumpkin pie is usually unexpected to a French person who is more accustomed to using pumpkins in savoury dishes such as soups.

One of the aspects of pumpkin pie that most of my French friends have told me they don’t like is that the texture, taste, and spices don’t go well together.

Oddly enough, many of the spices found in pumpkin pie recipes such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger are also included in a popular spiced bread in France called “pain d’épices.” 

4. Picking up a drumstick with your fingers (mon dieu)

French people generally don't touch their food with their fingers

In North American culture, eating certain foods like a drumstick with your hands is sometimes acceptable.

In French culture, eating food with your fingers is rarely acceptable, especially when attending a special holiday meal where you’re supposed to use your best holiday table manners.

To use anything other than your knife and fork to eat the flesh of a turkey drumstick might seem a little bizarre to a French person. 

5. Not serving a cheese course

A french cheese plate course is usually expected at a special holiday meal.

Cheese is a huge part of the French way of life. French children are exposed to and learn to appreciate all sorts of cheeses from an early age, both in school cafeterias and at home.

You could say the art of eating and serving cheese is second nature to a French person.

Not serving a cheese course or cheese plate, especially for a critical holiday meal, would be like not serving  the main course or dessert.

Wouldn’t you notice immediately that the main course was missing? Of course, you would.

Typically, in a French home, your host might offer you one single type of cheese (always good quality), but for larger gatherings, your host will most likely create a cheese plate with a mix of soft, semi-soft, medium-hard, semi-hard and hard cheeses along with a variety of bread—rye, walnut, baguette, cumin, country bread, even gingerbread called pain d’épices.

You might be interested in reading about these vegan French cheeses you can buy or make at home. 

6. Serving gravy and pouring it over turkey and mashed potatoes

overloaded Thanksgiving plate

There are countless sauces and gravy that are served with different dishes in French cuisine.

However, serving gravy to pour over slices of turkey and mashed potatoes is not a traditional French custom.

7. Turkey sandwiches from leftovers

leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwich

There is nothing wrong with making sandwiches from Thanksgiving leftovers. 

However, adding leftover cranberry sauce and stuffing to the sandwich might be off-putting to a French person. 

8. Serving cranberry sauce with turkey

Cranberry sauc is not a normal accompaniment to turkey in France

Turkey and cranberry sauce go hand in hand, like jam and bread, yet in French cuisine, there is no such connection between turkey and cranberry.

Go ahead and give a French person this combo and watch their eyes light up in delight or squint at its unexpected tanginess.

Check out this recipe for homemade cranberry sauce over at Theprairiehomestead.com

9. Serving Corn never happens in France

French people generally don't eat corn, ever

If you want to see something extraordinary, serve some corn on the cob to your French guests.

They won’t be sure what to do.

Pick it up with their hands? Cut the kernels off with their knife and fork? It’s too big to ignore and leave to the side!

Corn is animal food, not people’s food, as far as the French are concerned.

Corn is usually sold in small cans and added to recipes and salads and rarely sold fresh in French grocery stores. When you do find fresh corn, it’s usually sold in a set of two on a styrofoam wrapped in cellophane plastic.

10. Fall and harvest-themed Thanksgiving decorations

Cornucopia often filled with often filled with a variety of fruits, vegetables, and seasonal harvest items as a Thanksgiving decoration

Holiday decorations are an important part of any holiday meal, each with its specific customs.

While decorations can vary based on personal preferences, typical decorations associated with Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada usually involve the harvest theme.

TThis theme is popular is France for festivals and fairs butm Might look a little strange to a French pper so as a dinner theme. 

Such as;

  • Cornucopia, also known as the “horn of plenty,” is often filled with a variety of fruits, vegetables, and seasonal harvest items.
  • Scarecrows
  • Scattered leaves
  • Pumpkins and gourds
  • Colourful dried corn cobs, known as Indian corn
  • And other harvest-themed decor:  wooden crates and baskets of apples.

11. Serving a big mug of coffee before the meal instead of a small espresso after the meal

Everyday coffee in France is an espresso

After the appetizer, the main course, the cheese, the salad and dessert, in French dining, it’s customary to drink a coffee, which is usually an espresso. 

Coffee is never served before a meal—especially a huge mug of weak coffee. 

12. Arriving on time or early for dinner

15 minutes of politeness in France: it's ok to arrive late when invited to someone's house

North Americans like to show up on time or early when invited to someone’s house for dinner. Not much, maybe just 5 or 10 minutes early.

In France, however, a French person will usually be late. There is even a running joke amongst my French friends and expat friends about how the French are always late.

There’s a perfectly good reason for this, and it’s because it’s considered polite. It’s not that it’s rude to show up early; it’s just more polite to show up a little late.

It’s called “the 15-minute rule of politeness” ( “e quart d’heure de politesse) and I love this rule.

By arriving about 15 minutes late, you allow your host the time they need to do a little tweaking to finish up their last-minute preparations.

13. Hugging everyone instead of cheek-kissing

How to faire la bise step by step directions on greeting a French person with a French cheek kiss

How do you greet your dinner guests? Most likely, you hug them or shake their hand.

In France, people greet each other with cheek kisses just like in the movies— not with big ole bear hugs.

It only took me a couple of years to figure it out, but I finally learned all the rules of French cheek-kissing, which you can read about here. The fine art of greeting a French person with a cheek kiss (La bise)

14. Watching a Football game on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving football thanksgiving postcard

My husband and I were once invited to a friend’s house in Toulon to enjoy Paella.

Immediately afterwards, our friend turned on the tele, and everyone watched a French rugby match. I believe it was Marseille playing against Spain.

I was excited at the prospect of participating in this French gathering, even if it was to watch sports. (I’m not a big sports fan).

I had no idea what was going on during the match, even though it was fun yelling and screaming at the TV. Then, the novelty of it wore off, and I got bored.

I imagine that’s how a French person might feel if invited to a Thanksgiving dinner followed by watching American or Canadian football.

Come to think of it, I get bored of watching football too.

Each year, the annual Thanksgiving Day Classic doubleheader is broadcast, where four teams from the CFL (Canadian Football League) compete for Thanksgiving glory!

In the United States, American football is a major part of Thanksgiving Day. The National Football League (NFL) schedules a series of games on Thanksgiving, and many families gather around the TV to watch these games while enjoying their holiday meals

15. Serving all the courses at once

French people don't serve food all at once and load their plate

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans and Canadians bring out all the dishes at once, except perhaps dessert.

That’s not usually the case in France for special meals.

Courses come out in waves. First, the appetizers and main course, then the cheese and salad, pause, then dessert.

There’s no chance of overloading the plate. It would be rude to do so anyway. 

You might be interested in reading. Understanding the 2-7 dinner courses of a formal French multi-course meal

16. Overloading your plate

Everyone who has ever celebrated Thanksgiving has made the mistake of overloading their plate at least once, only to end up in a food coma afterwards.

Although Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated in France, French people do have other holiday meals, such as Christmas and New Year’s.

However, portions tend to be restrained. This is mainly due to cultural and historical differences in dining traditions. 

Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada is often centred around celebrating abundance and giving thanks for the harvest. Therefore, the tradition of loading up your plate symbolizes this sense of plenty and gratitude.

On the other hand, a French holiday meal is usually focused on quality over quantity; each course is meant to be savoured and appreciated. 

Maybe that’s why French people aren’t a nation of obese people. 

17. Candied Sweet Potatoes or Yams with Marshmallows:

Combining sweet potatoes with marshmallows is an unexpected flavour and texture combination, not just to a lot of cultures, not just the French.

18. Turkey should look like a turkey, not Frankenstein

Although France doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, French people are accustomed to eating a classic Christmas turkey as part of the Christmas feast.

When I say classic, I mean something like a turkey stuffed with foie gras and apples or chestnuts and chanterelles, but never one of those crazy Pinterest recipes.

You’ll definitely get some funny looks from a French person if you serve a deep-fried turkey, beer can turkey, bacon-wrapped turkey or turducken (a boned chicken inside a boned duck, which is then placed inside a partially boned turkey).

A bacon turkeyducken might frighten your French guests

Goose, duck or Capon are also French favourites. A capon is a young cock (cockerel) that has been castrated to improve its taste.  

photo source of TurbaconDucen

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.


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