Sunday, 30 November 2014

Thanksgiving: The Most and Least American of Holidays

In the years I lived in Britain, Thanksgiving became one of my favorite holidays. For one thing, I liked the idea of a break from work at the end of November, which we didn't get in the UK - public holidays there are set in such a way that between the end of August and Christmas, there are no days off at all. But it also struck me as the perfect way, along with Halloween, to delay the ever-earlier onset of Christmas decorations: here in the US, it's rare to see Christmas decorations before the first of November.

In the UK, by contrast, restaurants start taking bookings for office Christmas parties in August - no joke. One year Travelodge's ads on the Tube claimed that "it's never too early to book" for Christmas parties, which is a tacit admission that, yes, in fact, it was too early.

Sasha and Malia totally saw through that one, Travelodge

Eventually I also started to appreciate the fact that it's not really a consumer-driven or religious holiday (although there are some religious underpinnings to the first Thanksgiving, of course). Sure, you buy a turkey and all the food, but there's no pressure to buy presents or candy, and the point is to get together with your family and give thanks for what you have. I used to joke (on the square) that they should introduce Thanksgiving in the UK, both because it's easy to transport and because it would give a much-needed long weekend in the fall.

So I was rather excited to have my first Thanksgiving back at home in ten years. It wasn't a big family affair, because my sisters and dad were living in Europe, but my mom and step-dad laid out a nice spread for me, which we did ample justice to on Thursday. As is traditional, we also left loads of leftovers, which I've been chipping away at since.

Me after four days of Thanksgiving leftovers

But it was the day after, when I went for a walk to a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, that I got a sense of what the holiday means to Americans. At the start of the weekend I read an article that references Philip Roth and his description of Thanksgiving as the day when everyone eats the same thing as everyone else. 

I'd never thought of it that way, but that is, in fact, what makes Thanksgiving special among other holidays - Christmas and Easter reference one specific religion, even if everyone else has started celebrating them to a certain degree, while Halloween and even New Years Eve are open to being celebrated however you want. The only days that come close to offering the same sort of togetherness are Independence Day and Labor Day, which mark the only other occasion when Americans are pretty much all doing the same thing and the majority of people aren't working (a great many holidays here are optional for employers to give, which stinks, even though my company's given me all of them).

In any case, as I walked to Peet's Coffee, I saw a bunch of other people walking over, alone or in groups, with that same relaxed attitude that I was feeling. I knew that everybody I saw was recovering from their own Thanksgiving meal the day before, and now they were settling in for the rest of the long weekend.

It's easy to say that Thanksgiving is typically American, but I don't think it is. America is such a big, heterogeneous and fractious country that it's very hard to feel any connection to the people around you, whether coworkers or neighbors. As that article I read that mentioned Philip Roth said, your neighbor could be a fugitive from the law, or a cannibal, and the first you'd know about it is the police showing up on your street one day.

Britain, on the other hand, is small and crowded and homogeneous. London may be one of the most diverse cities in the world, but even there everything is set up as if its only inhabitants were white, Anglo-Saxon and Anglican. Christmas is the same kind of meal as Thanksgiving, with a roast turkey (or goose, if you want to be Dickensian) and a set of rituals that everybody partakes in: pulling crackers, drinking too much, listening to the Queen's Speech.

But this togetherness permeates everything that the British do - everybody shops at the same places (in part because Britain is the land of retail chains, but still), they watch the same TV and every couple of years pretty much everybody gets together to fulminate against another inept display by England's national team - whether in football, rugby or cricket, or even just to complain about the airtime sporting events seem to command (as if the World Cup were crowding out vibrant British TV, but again, I digress).

I'm being a little reductive, of course. People in London do lead different day-to-day lives than people in Northern England, and the different social classes have their own sets of rituals. But I do believe there are more constants in British life than in American life, which is why Roth's quote is so striking. Your family may do Thanksgiving differently than mine (my senior year in high school we ordered it from a restaurant, and hung out in the jacuzzi as we waited for the delivery), but the important thing is that we all do it, and that it's one of the few things that we, as a country, choose to have in common.