It has been two weeks since Thanksgiving and I have almost digested the mounds of turkey meat and accompaniments consumed during the festivity. I have also had time to process the meaning of this most American of holidays.
Its origins go back right to the very founding of modern America in the early 17th century. Specifically, Thanksgiving commemorates the first successful harvest by a bunch of English Christian pilgrims who had come to the New World having fled religious persecution in the old country. They celebrated it their survival amid harsh conditions with the local Wampanoag tribe with whom they’d developed friendly relations. It was a landmark for the embryonic European settlement and also a highpoint in relations between the natives and newcomers, which later descended into displacement, death and disasters for the Indians.
Almost five hundred years on from that original meal, Thanksgiving has grown into a national happening of epic proportions. It’s hard to describe to outsiders what a big deal Thanksgiving is here. In the run up to the day, one half of the nation seems to be en-route – via crammed highways and overflowing airports – to be with the other half, who are frenetically preparing a monumental feast.
Turkeys are the main attraction (and victim) of this annual eatathon. According to the American Turkey Federation (yes – it really exists) in 2013, 46 million of these plump birds where eaten at Thanksgiving, compared to 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter. That means one turkey between every seven Americans, equaling a lot of poultry with room for considerable leftovers. This consumption demonstrates the primary place this holiday has above all others in the national calendar.
Our own Thanksgiving experience with extended family in Long Island, came with all the traditional elements. A long traffic jam en-route to the gathering, vast quantities of great food, free-flowing alcohol, and a post mealtime gathering around the TV to watch the day’s big American football games (which all made sense after my second whisky).
Some things were new and strange, such a dish of baked sweet potato sprinkled with marshmallows, but it was all overwhelmingly American in its warmth, generosity and plenty.
Apart from the pleasure of eating and drinking surrounded by great company there was also for me, something deeply satisfying about the holiday itself. It is free of religious dogma, allowing people of all backgrounds to feel they can comfortably participate. Despite the fact that it has become about consumption (and post-Thanksgiving sales), there is an underlying sense that it is about paying homage to America as a country and a society, open to all its citizens.
In the run up to Thanksgiving our local kosher supermarket was stocked with freezers full turkeys sufficient to feed most of the tribes of Israel. For American Jews it’s not just the food that kosher, it’s also the holiday itself. In researching this piece, I was surprised to find backing for Thanksgiving from some of the great orthodox Rabbis.
This holiday is a celebration of American-ness for all people in the country whatever their hyphenations: Irish-American, African-American, Jewish-American and so on. This is one of the great strengths and successes of the USA , that it has managed – even with certain caveats – to make citizenship here feel inclusive, and also to make people of wildly differing origins want to be able to be a part of this society, without having to give up on their particular background.
Thus, despite my lack of American nationality, I am also beginning to feel the draw of Thanksgiving, and not just because of the prospect of the turkey with all the trimmings.