I’d never given much thought to American Thanksgiving, other than it was an American holiday at the end of November. I knew it commemorated the pilgrims first year of survival in the New World and that was about it.
We moved to the USA in 1997 and our first Thanksgiving was a revelation. In my superior British way, I assumed this was an American excuse for a fun time, shopping and good TV. After all, this was a young, brash, in-your-face-country which couldn’t hold a candle to Europe when it came to tradition, spectacle, and let’s face it, class.
I know, I was an a**.
We’d been invited to spend our Thanksgiving with business colleagues of the Captain. They’d generously invited us to share the day with them and their extended family. We had no clue what to expect and had been told to bring nothing but ourselves.
As Thanksgiving approached and the nation went into overdrive we began to sense this was a much a bigger deal than we’d thought.
Christmas trees were appearing everywhere (one notable local family had their 15 foot Christmas tree dressed and in their 2-story foyer at Halloween), along with exterior lights and decorations. The only comparable reference I had was Oxford Street, London, at the switching on of the Christmas lights. I was seriously worried about the ability of the national grid to handle the load.
We hadn’t realised the Holiday season started at Thanksgiving. Or rather the day after, Black Friday, the biggest day of the year for retailers. Shell-shocked by this cultural anomaly we arrived at our hosts on Thanksgiving Day.
We were assaulted by glorious cooking smells, noise, and general mayhem. This didn’t sit well with our English sensibilities. Nor was this was a typical Deep South Thanksgiving (we realised later) but a New York Jewish one, with all the lively banter and chaos that entailed.
The women chatted in the kitchen and the men passed considered opinions on the Big Game, while they watched the pre-match analysis on the TV. Amongst this children were racing around having a good time, watched indulgently by relaxed adults.
By the time we sat down for dinner the last thing we felt like was food. From the minute we’d stepped through the front door we’d been offered a constant supply of appetizers and knew it would have been ungracious to refuse. Food is love and this was the season to celebrate both.
We couldn’t believe the amount and variety of festive fare on offer, some of it traditional all-American, some Jewish. We started with matzah ball soup. The kids handled this well, and managed to disguise their surprise when mashed sweet potato topped with melted marshmallows followed with the main course. It was very different to anything we had previously regarded as a turkey dinner.
By the time the meal over everyone was ready to explode. We left pretty soon afterwards, feeling, as only brits can, that our hosts may appreciate some time with their immediate family. In reality they probably thought we were rude and churlish for leaving before the end of the day, such is the warmth and welcoming nature of every American I’ve ever met.
From our perspective as British naturalized Americans it has been wonderful over the years, to observe how people celebrate Thanksgiving and we fully appreciate – now – how deeply ingrained it is in the American psyche.
America is an embracing nation, whatever your opinion on the global and national politics of the country its people have huge hearts and great generosity of spirit. They are curious, enthusiastic and embracing.
It has diverse nationalities, cultures, colors and religions all trying to get along. Of course it’s not easy, but once a year the nation observes a tradition that transcends race, color, creed and politics, with everybody bringing something of their own to the table.
Thanksgiving celebrates life and shared humanity. Whatever our backgrounds or ethnic origins we all want the best for our families and the freedom to live and worship the way we choose. It has a purity at its core which is sometimes lost in the hurly burly of life. It allows us to focus on family, friends and sharing food, acknowledging two of our most basic human needs, companionship and sustenance.
So to our friends and family all over the globe, whatever country you’re in, whoever you’re sharing the day with, safe travels and have a happy, reflective, Thanksgiving.
For anyone who’s interested in how Thanksgiving is celebrated in the south, check out www.southernliving.com