Last November Waitrose said their turkey sales were up 95% as compared with five years ago. It wasn’t just Waitrose though. Turkeys were being sold everywhere, from specialist butchers in the East End to Ocado and beyond. Census data says approximately 200,000 Americans live in Britain, but that’s only .003 percent of the population. Why then do an estimated 1 in 6 Britons now celebrate Thanksgiving? Because it’s one of the best holidays that’s why.
Though I moved from Los Angeles to London six years ago, I still can’t get used to the British Christmas that drags on until January. In America, a twelve day long Christmas does not exist. Boxing Day is not observed. And no one watches “It’s a Wonderful Life” after the 25th, not because they don’t like it but because the window has closed. In The U.K. all that’s standard practice. Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas but it is entirely possible to stay too long at the fair. Thanksgiving, however, is just a day and one that always leaves me wanting more.
Where Christmas is an occasion for family, Thanksgiving is one for friends and strangers. Tables are not complete without the addition of extra last minute seats. When The World Trade Center was attacked I was in college in New York. That Thanksgiving many parents (mine included) didn’t want their children flying home for fear of another terrorist related tragedy. But instead of having to eat instant noodles in our dormitories alone, we were welcomed at the tables of people we tenuously knew or didn’t know at all–friends of our parents’ friends, professors from school, the families of those we interned with in Manhattan. Thanksgiving is the ultimate holiday for taking in displaced strays.
Best of all you don’t have to buy presents for anyone. I am always filled with a slight dread when it comes to Christmas gift-giving. I never want to leave anybody out. My nightmare scenario is receiving a present from someone for whom I’ve not purchased or made a thing. I know Britons hate the idea of Black Friday which has sadly become inextricably linked with Thanksgiving, but so do many Americans. With my hand over my heart I can honestly say I have never been out shopping the day after Thanksgiving. Lots of other people who also celebrate Thanksgiving can tell you the same. Capitalism is not the heart of this holiday.
The feast is the focus of Thanksgiving, primarily the sharing of it. You might think this would make it more stressful than Christmas in terms of preparation, but in fact it is calmer. Tradition dictates that the person hosting makes the turkey and a few sides, but most guests also bring a dish or two. The other wonderful thing about Thanksgiving dinner is that it gets turkey out of the way so if you do celebrate Christmas you can indulge in something tastier like a crown of pork or roast beef.
Lots of Britons assume Thanksgiving means having to eat things they think sound absolutely disgusting to them like yams with marshmallows. It does not. You serve what you like, though most people do have pumpkin pie on the table. My mother always made panna cotta with a cranberry and fig port sauce.
Because Thanksgiving is a federal holiday (proclaimed by Lincoln in 1863) and has no real religious affiliation, it creates a feeling of inclusivity that Christmas lacks. People of all creeds are welcome to participate. It doesn’t matter what you eat or if you pray. The point is to share what you have and be thankful.
When I was growing up one of my friends was Hindu. Each Thanksgiving the women in her family would prepare a full vegetarian feast. Despite their upbringing, my friend and her brother loved meat and ate it on the sly. Knowing that their dinner would never include roast turkey, it became a tradition that they would sneak out of the house for In N Out hamburgers before relatives would arrive in the afternoon. The wonderful thing about Thanksgiving is that your traditions can be whatever you want.
Throughout the years the meaning of Thanksgiving has evolved. These days I’d say it has nothing to do with celebrating the Pilgrim Fathers. Nor should it, as their friendship with the indigenous tribes was spurious. Thanksgiving is about giving thanks and most importantly, sharing what you have. It is a day to invite not just loved ones and friends, but also strangers into your home. It is a day to volunteer and feed the poor. It is a day for generosity. Of course these are tenets that should be part of our daily lives, but Thanksgiving highlights them and reminds us of the kindness and generosity of spirit we should embrace the whole year through.
So with a thankful heart I wish you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving.