Thanksgiving. The quintessentially American holiday. Family. Turkey. Pumpkin pie. Football. Macy’s Parade. Steve Martin and John Candy fighting their way home for the holiday.
Over the last month, all of my American friends and contacts have been looking forward to Thanksgiving and sharing their plans for gathering their families together. It seems to me to be the very best of holidays – like an enormous Sunday lunch which all of your family will make a tremendous effort to attend, but lacking the myriad stresses so often associated with Christmas. Little commercialisation – no cards to write, no presents to buy - indeed it provides a bulwark against the potential encroachment of Christmas into November, as any temptation to sneak even a few Yule candles into your home decor is to be firmly resisted until Thanksgiving has passed and the Autumn flags have been taken down.
I remember my own English expat children being taught the story of Thanksgiving in Grade School, dressing as Pilgrims and bringing home to me the simple story of two different peoples coming together to give thanks for a harvest that would see their communities safely through the winter. I particularly enjoyed learning that the American president pardons two Thanksgiving turkeys each year. It could be argued that the story of the feast between the Mayflower Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621, given to thank the native community for helping the immigrants through their first difficult year, is perhaps somewhat mythologised. But the simple message of friendship and gratitude is one to which we can all relate.
Thanksgiving is also celebrated in other countries, most notably in Canada, in October. It appears to have its roots in the Harvest Festival celebrations brought across from Europe, which go back to Pagan, Roman and Early Christian Europe, and to Ancient Egypt and China. The Chinese still celebrate the August Moon Festival, where gifts of moon cakes are given to symbolise the safe gathering of the harvest. The date of American Thanksgiving, the last Thursday in November, does seem a little late for a harvest festival, and it was in fact celebrated originally in August, being moved rather arbitrarily it seems by President Lincoln in 1864. We can see also the influence of the English Puritans, with their practice of setting aside Thanksgiving days to mark the end of periods of great hardship.
As for the meal itself: whilst it may be deemed acceptable to substitute Beef Wellington, or roast goose, or even Nut Roast for your turkey at Christmas, I do not believe any American would countenance the idea of a Thanksgiving Dinner that did not include foods based on those available to the original settlers: a golden turkey, with cranberry sauce and stuffing, cornbread, mashed potatoes, salad, vegetables and gravy, with pumpkin or pecan pie to follow.
So – a wonderfully simple but powerful holiday. Gather your family around you. Include others less fortunate than yourselves. Eat traditional and familiar foods, served just the way your grandmother made them, and possibly on the same dishes. Watch the football game. And take a moment to remember to say thank you for all the wonderful things in your life. Thanksgiving. It’s a good thing.