Thanksgiving Redux

Now that Halloween is relentlessly integrated into the French calendar, can Thanksgiving be far behind? Globalisation has fired up holiday marketing strategies everywhere in Europe, making it easier for expats to find greeting cards on Valentine’s Day, chocolate bunnies at Easter and witch hats and pumpkins on Halloween. But could the Old World embrace such a quintessential standard of Americana as Thanksgiving?

From the market perspective, it’s not a big moneymaker. A friend described Thanksgiving as his favorite national holiday because it is a day of congé devoted to family, friends and food, and doesn’t necessarily call for any religious, military or commercial recognition. Sure, Hallmark makes a bit of money on cards, the grocers do pretty well, and politicians and preachers do seize the opportunity for soundbites, but the only gifts exchanged are good food and good company. Gluttony aside, Thanksgiving Day offers a nostalgic comfort that is both traditional and satisfying.

Many expats, and not just Europeans who happily join American friends for a turkey dinner on 28th November, have a rather blurred idea of the day’s significance. There’s a romantic version in which Puritans and Indians happily break bread together in a communal festival; the religious slant that stresses the blessing of God’s bounty; and a number of radical takes, including one that defines the shared meal as a diplomatic move to negotiate a land-grab treaty. Not to mention Art Buchwald’s perennially amusing tale of the “Jour du merci donnant”, published each year in the International Herald Tribune.

The original event in mid-October 1621 at Plymouth (Massachusetts) was a three-day harvest feast, a religious custom brought over from England. The pilgrims were indeed celebrating the production of a bounty crop of food, thanks to the assistance of the native Wampanoag tribe who showed them practical survival skills: among other things, how to cultivate Indian corn, tap for maple syrup and construct practical wigwam shelters. This, after a devastating year in which 42 out of the original 104 Mayflower settlers died.

The pilgrims at Plymouth were not technically Puritans, but a sub-sect called the Separatists. They shared the same Calvinistic religious beliefs, with the difference that the Puritans wanted to “purify” the Church of England (as Cromwell was himself a Puritan, they succeeded to some extent). The Separatists, on the other hand, wanted to completely separate ties with the Church and were thus the first to seek out the new world.

The classic Thanksgiving Day portrait of soberly clad Puritans with buckles on their hats and shoes, and blunderbusses at their sides, are picturesque anachronisms, as are the log cabins in the background. Blunderbusses were not used for hunting, and log cabins were only brought to America by Swedish colonists 17 years later. Furthermore, according to Caleb Johnson’s Mayflower Web Page, inventories of the estates of the Mayflower pilgrims list colorful wardrobes: John Howland had two red waistcoats, William Bradford had a green gown and violet cloak, and William Brewster had a red cap and green drawers.

In any case, this was just one more harvest feast for the indigenous peoples. The Algonquin tribes held six such festivals during the year, to celebrate the strawberry crop or the ripening of the corn. Besides, farming communities the world over have feted the harvest for millennia. France could even take the honors today for the most international harvest celebration, with the mass uncorking of Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday in November.

The Canadians, who got the jump on their southern neighbors in 1578 with a formal ceremony of thanksgiving in Newfoundland, celebrate theirs the second Monday in October. In fact, the American day of thanksgiving wasn’t formally created before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it so in 1863, and it wasn’t until 1941 that Congress sanctioned the last Thursday in November as a legal holiday.

That said, this is, as Buchwald notes, the only time of the year in which Americans eat better than the French. The traditional meal calls for roast turkey with stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans or corn, sweet potatoes, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin or pecan pie. The dinner would be more authentic with wild turkey, goose or even eagle, along with fish and seafood.

Why turkey? No one seems to know why the now-factory-farm turkey has become the focus of Thanksgiving dinner. But it may be that Benjamin Franklin instigated it when he complained, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a Bird of bad moral character; like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing, he is generally poor and very often lousy. The Turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true original Native of North America”.

Today, hundreds of “butterball” turkeys are flown out to American embassies around the world, and both the Thanksgiving grocery and restaurant, and The Real McCoy shop take orders for turkeys and pies. While restaurants are increasingly catering to Thanksgiving diners, tables are often booked for weeks in advance.

But, wait, isn’t this how Halloween crept in? We may start seeing tartes de potiron at the bakeries, and fat naked turkeys instead of feathered birds hanging at the butchers. If so, we’ll know that globalisation has struck again. After all, why not? A simple meal shared between Americans and natives doesn’t necessarily presage a cultural takeover. Sursum corda.