Thanksgiving Days

First-Thanksgiving
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. This is a multicultural, transatlantic post. People keep asking me, and though I haven’t celebrated the day in years I was spurred on the other day to start thinking about it, so here we are.

In America, Thanksgiving feels sort of like a British Christmas, but without presents, hats or crackers. It’s all FAAAMILY, innit, as Pat Butcher would say. This frees Christmas up to be more social, more inclusive of friends and neighbours who might be on their own, and – frankly – a lot more FUN.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are both based on stories, and in both cases the stories have assumed the shape and status of myths. The Christmas story is, ultimately (in a way), a story about the power of love, which is why the ecumenical Christmas, the ‘Peace’ and ‘Seasons’ Greetings’ cards, go down so well in a multi-cultural society. The American Christian message – at least in our Commie Pinko corner of the northeast – is, or was, always more about loving thy neighbour, and generosity, and taking in the lonely and the stray, and indeed the neighbour of a different religion who might not have a house full of food and relatives to spend the day with.

Thanksgiving’s story,  while also about multiculturalism and helping thy neighbour, is based on documented fact – more so than when I was a kid, I think. I thought I’d written about Squanto before, but apparently not. He’s the Indian who is said to have shown the Pilgrims how to plant corn, with a fish under it for food, so it would grow strong and plentiful, and thus ensured their survival – which they celebrated with the First Thanksgiving. Every child learns this story by age six or seven. In the story we were told back in the day, Squanto is a kind Indian who lives with a local tribe and takes pity on the new settlers; though how this generosity is supposed to make us feel better about our subsequent behaviour, I’m not sure. In real life, Tisquantum had already crossed the Atlantic six times. The Puritan settlers were not the first Europeans to land on that bit of the Massachussetts coast. He had been across the Altantic six times – captured, nearly sold into slavery in Spain, rescued, indentured, converted to Christianity – he had lived in London, and been brought back in Captain John Smith’s ship – and was the last survivor of his village, the rest having been killed off by some European disease or other. His life, therefore, like that of the doomed Pocahontas, was all about the Europeans. The reason he was able to share the local lore with them is because he spoke English, and the reason he needed them is because his people were dead. It’s even possible that his early death was from being poisoned by the remaining Massasoit, in revenge for cosying up with the English.

So Thanksgiving is a festival embedded in brutal reality. Indeed, the Puritans were literally thanking God that they were alive. Over half of them had starved, got scurvy, got sick, died. It took till Abe Lincoln to make it a national holiday. It’s the day when on a basic level you hunker down with your nearest and dearest and symbolically re-enact Not Starving to Death. (When I was about eight there was a story about a man who ate himself to death by consuming two or three giant Thanksgiving dinners and then exploding. This may or may not have been apocryphal, like the one about the man who ate nothing but carrots for several months, turned orange, and died.)

It’s also, in our time – or was, in my time – the most boring day of the year.

Of course, I have to say that; I don’t like American football. (Why would I?? It’s a sport.) Aside from New Year’s Day, today is THE big football day of the year. I remember my grandmother, in her dress and her brooch, with her little glass of whisky, sitting in front of the football cheering on her team. She would wait till one team seemed to be losing and then she’d root for them. ‘GO ON!’ she’d should, ‘GO! YES! Oh, those poor boys.’

Dad would be in the kitchen cooking a giant turkey – 25, 30 pounds of it – and drinking bourbon. All the other grownups would be helping either him with the food or Gran Gran with the football. We, with no presents to play with, thus had nothing to do. You couldn’t even really go in the living room. We were forbidden to eat one bite of anything, even a peanut butter sandwich at lunchtime to stave off the shakes, for fear of spoiling our appetites. But the turkey being so enormous, the big meal would never be ready till at least 4pm, and sometimes 5.

Happy days!

Once I got so bored I went down to the end of our road to see what was happening, and there was nothing happening. Not a person in sight; everyone was watching the football or cooking. Even in the main drag, not a car was in sight as far as I could see. I celebrated the weirdness by standing in the middle of the road, but after a few minutes that got boring, too, so I just went home.

The table, when it happened, was a Dickensian groaning board, covered in one of the crochet lace tablecloths my other grandfather made, with candles, and we would stand around it and sing Grace:  Praise God from whom all blessings flow; praise Him all creatures here below…. (Minister’s granddaughter, remember. Service to others. Be thankful for what you’ve got. Not this stuff they have today; it was separation of church & state, back then.) Then finally you’d be allowed to sit down, and the meal would be served, and it was GLORIOUS, and you’d eat so fast you were bursting, without having ever tasted a thing.

Turkey. New England (as I know understand it to be) white bread stuffing (cubes, not crumbs) with sage and onion. Mashed potatoes. Sweet potato. Squash. Mom’s (now Nana’s) famous green bean casserole, which I make every Christmas and is still the one thing EVERYONE asks for more of. And other stuff. Creamed this, scalloped that, Daddy’s molasses bread (or was that just Christmas?), raisin bread, cranberry sauce, gravy.

For dessert, three pies. Pumpkin, of course. De rigueur, and for some of us, the main act. Apple. Mince, ie mincemeat, which we had as one big pie, not as many little ones. With whipped cream. Was there ice cream? I can’t remember. Maybe sometimes. And sometimes a pecan pie.

Like any emigrant, my understanding of the home country is also stuck in the past. It’s a feat of memory, not a living experience. In the eighties I used to go with my aunt to her expat work colleagues’ houses, but it was on the weekend, and while it was nice and kind of Thanksgivingy, it always felt a bit like pretend. That stopped anyway eventually  – kids, work – life… So Thanksgiving is but a blip on my radar. Facebook, if anything, has brought it back; like everything else on the internet, it’s kind of dominated by American cultural news, and my timeline is full of people cooking. (I have to say though, the trend to use Facebook as a platform for listing all the things you’re thankful for does grate. I’ve hidden people who do too much Being Grateful in public for their wonderful jobs, beautiful loving wives, gorgeous loving husbands, amazing kids, big houses, and wonderful opportunities. Calling it an ‘opportunity’ does NOT mean you’re not bragging!)

I was only dimly aware of its imminence this year, until a friend emailed asking for impressions for a humorous article about what it’s really like, for a British audience. I was too late, but she got me thinking. My impressions are a bit out of date though. There’s no more Dad, or Gran Gran, or Uncle George, or Harvey, and Aunt B is in her nursing home here in Hackney, and I don’t even know what everyone’s eating. Recipes change. We’ve got celebrity chefs now, not Squanto. And of course everybody’s on the web.

I gather also that the famous Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving, when Americans use their unusual day off to get a start on XMas  – is spreading to Thanksgiving itself, so that malls are opening today with massive sales, etc. This is NOT a good thing, and if you are reading this in America, please don’t go to the mall!

Here, of course, it’s business as usual. I’m at my desk (obvs) and have a two-hour tutorial/editing session later.

But happy Thanksgiving to all! Even right now, when everything on the face of it is so shit, there is plenty to be thankful for, and it’s more important than ever to BE thankful for it. The important stuff is indeed, when you get down to it, the food and the people. So I hope you, reading this, have both. xx

(Now, time for lunch.)

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