Today is a day where every American forgets the violent invasion of the New World and enjoys a peaceful day off work with friends, family and freaking huge amounts of food. Basically, what us Brits do for Christmas.
My first ever Thanksgiving, the husband and I went to the mother-in-law’s for the day. I wasn’t working at the time, and my sister-in-law was driving us up with her kids and her partner. Being used to dressing smartly for Christmas, I ended up being somewhat overdressed in a nice Julien Macdonald green number (OK, it was from his Debenhams collection) while everyone else was rocking Land’s End.
It also wasn’t my mother-in-law’s house; she was a live-in home care assistant for an elderly lady whose family lived up the road, but couldn’t be bothered to actually show up. So they had just left her alone for Thanksgiving. Charming. She was happy to have all of us (two of my husband’s other siblings came too), and it was a fun day of garden American football, playing in leaves, video games, pie-baking (four – cherry; apple; pumpkin and cherry-apple) and lots and lots of other food.
All of the vegetables were mashed and pureed – I thought this was for the elderly lady’s benefit, but it turned out that that really was a type of tradition. A little weird, especially considering that we had, well, failed to provide ourselves with any kind of turkey substitute, both of us being vegetarian.
Thanksgiving has been accepted as a family-centric tradition for a long time. More so than Christmas, but the idea still seems foreign to me for the most obvious reasons: we don’t have it in the UK, I don’t eat turkey and I have no family here. You’ve got the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (a huge parade in NYC), an American football game and, again, a truckload of food.
Speaking of food, most of what I see on TV and read about what others make usually have ingredients regional to New England – cranberries, apples, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, yams and other gourds, butternut squash – all local fare. Other items such as pecan (pie), cornbread (stuffing) and Collard greens are Southern traditions that were spread by travellers. Other traditions are things like turducken, a mutant meat monster popularised by sports broadcaster and video game inspirer John Madden:
But the fact remains that most traditional Thanksgiving food is largely influenced by New England traditions. Why? Because when the Pilgrims swanned into what they thought was India, they ran out of food (killing Native Americans and stealing their land is hungry work) because supplies were improperly organised, so the Native Americans kindly offered up a lot of their food to share, completely unaware that this random act of kindness would evolve into a holiday glossing over the origins of itself and bastardising the act in the first place. This has now become a non-religious, national holiday, which plays a part in why everyone and their mum and Atheist partner or Catholic sister-in-law or Wiccan cousin can all celebrate together.
This website is an excellent resource for the history of all things Thanksgiving, but in summary, the first few Thanksgivings in New England were based off of English harvest celebrations – funnily enough, nothing I’m used to seeing in England. Ever. Washington was one of the first Presidents to declare it a national holiday, and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale got Abraham Lincoln to declare two yearly Thanksgivings, one being the last Thursday in November. After Roosevelt pushed it back by one week to lengthen the Christmas shopping season in the late ’30s, it was reinstated to the last Thursday of the month a few years later.
My husband’s family Thanksgiving gatherings have sort of died out for the time being, so yesterday I did what most English people do before a national holiday and got proper drunk. I spent most of the day sleeping off quite possibly the worst monster hangover I’ve ever had, and only woke up a few hours ago to watch Thanksgiving-themed TV episodes on Hulu.