Long life

There’s nothing British about it but one in six Britons now celebrates Thanksgiving

We are addicting to celebrating — even when we have nothing to celebrate

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

I have always found Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in the United States last week, the most agreeable and least stressful of holidays. It involves no present-giving, so it is almost free of commercialism and the anxieties associated with shopping; and it has no religious or political connotations, which means it can be enjoyed in equal measure by Americans of every kind. Christmas, on the other hand, despite all the efforts made in America to play down its religious origins, retains an element of exclusivity about it: if you are not a Christian, it is not really your day. Thanksgiving, with its emphasis not only on gratitude but also on goodwill and generosity towards everyone, yet without the divisive intrusion of religion, is perhaps the ideal family festival for the modern world.

It is a holiday with rather confused origins. It was reputedly first celebrated by the Puritan settlers, who in 1621 landed in the Mayflower at Plymouth, Massachusetts, to give thanks for the harvest they reaped after their ferocious first winter on American soil. After that, it was observed sporadically on different dates in different states until Abraham Lincoln, without reference to the Pilgrim Fathers, decided in 1863 to declare the last Thursday in November a national day of thanks for his Civil War victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. It was an odd time to be giving thanks. The Union was bloodily divided and New York City was in the throes of draft riots. But the holiday survived and gradually rediscovered its supposed Pilgrim roots.


It is said that the Pilgrims ate four wild turkeys at their first Thanksgiving feast. Last week Americans ate more than 50 million farm-fattened ones. But the ‘Thanksgiving turkey’ is another tradition of quite recent origin, thanks largely to brilliant marketing by American turkey farmers. While some 90 per cent of American families now have turkey on their table at Thanksgiving, the turkey wasn’t widely accepted as the indispensable Thanksgiving dish until the middle of the 20th century. It was then, in 1947, that the National Turkey Federation formally presented a turkey to President Harry S. Truman, who started another tradition by deciding to ‘pardon’ it. This whimsical ceremony has taken place annually at the White House ever since, as it did again last week when President Obama pardoned not one but two turkeys that had been named ‘Abe’ and ‘Honest’ by Californian schoolchildren. ‘I know some folks think that this tradition is a little silly,’ he said. ‘I do not disagree.’

In Britain, of course, most of us eat turkey at Christmas and, thanks to people like Charles Dickens and the late Bernard Matthews, we tend to regard the turkey as quintessentially British. But it isn’t at all. Not only are turkeys everywhere basically American, all of them being descended from the wild turkey, an exclusively American bird; the British don’t even rank among the world’s biggest consumers of the fowl. Strangely, the Israelis eat more turkey per capita even than the Americans; and Britain’s consumption of turkey lags behind not only that of Israel and the United States but also of France, Italy and Germany.

However, we may soon catch up. I read in the Daily Telegraph that Thanksgiving is beginning to catch on in Britain too. Supermarkets have reported rocketing sales in November not only of turkey but also of other Thanksgiving specialities such as pumpkin pie, which, to my mind, is one of the most revolting dishes ever invented. Research based on these sales figures reaches the extraordinary conclusion that one in six Britons now celebrates Thanksgiving. There is nothing in the Thanksgiving tradition that is remotely relevant to Britain, except for the fact that it is thought to have been started by people who were desperate to get out of this country. So this suggests that we are simply addicted to celebrating as often as possible, even when we have nothing to celebrate. In fact, we like it better that way. We even do our best to drain Christmas of its meaning.

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  • davidshort10

    It is not strange that turkey is popular in Israel. It is also popular in Muslim countries. However, the bland bird is made even more unappetising by being made into ‘turkey ham’, something that is almost impossible to avoid when you want a sandwich in North Africa.

    • vieuxceps2

      Why would the British not celebrate the US Thanksgiving? They eagerly embrace as much of American life as they can gobble, down,including the very words and phrases of their daily lives. You guys all know that, don’cha? (Used by a teacher to a group of 5-year olds on a TV programme yesterday). Black Friday? Train station? Can I get? Pop music everywhere, of suffocating banality, US spellings in every publication, PC speech patterns,Coke of all types all the time everywhere……….

      • colchar

        Coke is still outsold by Irn Bru in Scotland, the only country in the world in which Coke is available but is outsold by something else.

  • Davedeparis

    But in a way the Brits are right to give thanks for the U.S. ( and also Canada) because otherwise they would completely done for.

  • Mary Ann

    Turkey on the last Thursday of November, then again for Christmas, too much, even the turkey filled fatty puss would get fed up with that.

  • Simon Fay

    Never heard of anyone British celebrating this.

  • cromwell

    July the 4th is British thanksgiving , the day we got rid of the whinging yanks.

  • Faaather Ted

    We’ve already imported enough American goods. The impact has been devastating.

  • marvin

    I am disappointed that the UK has found it necessary to copy the US in almost everything, and it has been to the detriment of the UK, long before any immigrants changed our situation. Our marketing strategies were far superior to that of the US yet we had to adopt their pretentious and bullying tactics that lost us many clients. Remember that “How may I help you?” routine? “You have a nice day now, y’hear!” and the advice, that you do not wait for people to ask for what they want “You tell people what they want and then sell it to them!” Celebrations! Our Christmas now starts in July! By the time, Christmas actually arrives, you are glad to get it over and done with! Previously, our way was to begin putting up decorations in the second week of December, make a dash around for all the presents that were needed, purchased food to last for a week – and then sit back and enjoy Christmas! There was no shops open over the Christmas period, so that staff could enjoy a Christmas break the same as everyone else. Now shops are open all over Christmas, all hours. The shoppers buy far less food as there is no overstocking needed – and the shops lose out on extra profits. The hundreds of thousands of shop employees and their families can no longer enjoy a ‘Christmas’ holiday break, less alcohol is purchased as fewer people have time to celebrate and the fun of everything has just gone!
    Stuff the American way of life!

    • colchar

      Living next door to the US myself, I am always amazed (appalled might be a better term) at how so many Brits seem to be obsessed with the US.

  • ChiGal

    If it makes you feel better, your Canadian cousins also celebrate Thanksgiving (although in October) with turkey and yes, pumpkin pie. So look at it as adopting a Canadian custom. Also, you forgot to mention that it wasn’t the Pilgrims celebrating by themselves – they invited their neighbors, the Native Americans, to join them. (Things clearly went rapidly downhill after that, but it’s nice to celebrate an event when we got it right.)

    • Callipygian

      Canadians aren’t nearly as committed to Thanksgiving, in my experience. It’s a paler imitation of the real one, south of the border.

      • colchar

        The real one south of the border? Canada’s Thanksgiving predates the American Thanksgiving so nice try. And yes, we are just as committed to it, we just don’t have the nationalistic undertone to ours that Americans do to theirs.

        • Callipygian

          Chip meet shoulder. Gee whiz! There is no ‘nationalistic undertone’: that’s all in your envious mind (as is your notion of history, though I don’t doubt that Canada had an old harvest celebration, as most Europeans do).

          • colchar

            No chip on my shoulder, just years of experience living next door to Americans and noticing the nationalistic undertones in their Thanksgiving. And there is no envy involved (there is nothing about their country that I envy and I am thankful my parents chose to move to Canada rather than the US), only fact. If you are at all interested in facts, the truth is that Thanksgiving was celebrated in Canada long before it was ever celebrated in the United States. If you don’t believe me, look it up. And no, it is not some harvest festival – our original Thanksgiving celebration was one in which thanks was given for surviving a winter in the Canadian north.

          • Callipygian

            You seem to be anti-American, and that’s such a shame and so pointless, ultimately. I’m Canadian, too, as it turns out — by a twist of fate. English by birth and culture, Canadian by circumstance, American by choice. It’s all legal, but I choose to live here for now.

  • Callipygian

    ‘retains an element of exclusivity about it: if you are not a Christian, it is not really your day.’

    Blimey.
    I totally disagree with that; in fact, as a statement it couldn’t be more wrong. The whole character of Christmas IS (like Christianity itself) inclusive, and it is about much more than religion, which you are free to ignore as you wish (I do). Christmas is too multi-faceted to be exclusive, which is why the Jewish writer Joseph Epstein says that for him as a child in a ‘relentlessly’ Jewish home, Christmas seemed to him to be THE American holiday (even more than Thanksgiving). I’ve never believed in Jesus Christ but I’ve always felt that Christmas belonged to me.

  • Callipygian

    For once I agree with Obama! Pass the smelling salts!

    Wild turkeys, by the way, are lovely, rather primitive-looking birds, especially when they fly. They’re rather like peacocks surprised in their dowdy dressing gowns.

  • Fenman

    Perhaps its all the immigrants who wd rather be in the US, Simon Fay.
    The true Brit hristmas fowl is goose, as in the old song. Tastes a damn site better too.

  • colchar

    Thanksgiving was celebrated in Canada long before it was ever celebrated in the United States.

    • Ed  

      I’ve always thought it weird that the Americans have Thanksgiving a month late.

  • Shorne

    Thanksgiving had it’s origins in the British Harvest Festival, similar celebrations happen all over the World. It seems reasonable to speculate that they go back to the time when human beings stopped being hunter gatherers and took up agriculture.

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