UPDATE: This is one of Expat Claptrap’s most popular posts, yet despite all the information contained here, British people still don’t seem to “get” this holiday, as you can see by reading about a recent Asda Thanksgiving promotion that is more than a little bit clueless.
You are British. You know Thanksgiving is an American holiday, you know it comes once a year, and that it involves eating turkey. You can even infer some of its meaning from the name of the holiday. If you go to Wikipedia you can learn about the history of the day- it involves pilgrims and Indians, if you care. But suppose you want the real story, the inside dope, the 411? What is Thanksgiving really all about? What are the traditions? What if you get invited to an American’s house for Thanksgiving? What do you do, and what can you expect? How can you avoid committing some kind of egregious faux pas, that could have been easily avoided if you had been raised in the land of the free? Thankfully, I’m here to help you.
But before we get started, and I pull back the shroud of secrecy about this, the most American of holidays, I have a word of warning for you, my redcoat friend. Don’t mess with Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is special and we don’t want you screwing it up for us. If you agree to my terms and conditions, then we can proceed. Here we go:
Thanksgiving is the holiday where you go home, and have a big meal to celebrate how thankful you are for what you have, particularly the people you care about.
Now I know you, British person, you’re looking for an angle. You’re thinking to yourself, “How does this fit into my notion of Americans as a country of crass consumerists whose tackiness is brought into high relief on their naff holidays?” It doesn’t. Leave Thanksgiving alone you cynical xenophobe. Thanksgiving is nice. It’s the holiday that you can’t really make fun of and you may never understand, because Thanksgiving is all about being earnest and grateful, and even you can’t look askance at that. Can you?
Here’s your guide to Thanksgiving. Use it wisely.
Thanksgiving week: If you are invited to an American’s house for Thanksgiving, it’s either a sign that they really value you as a friend or they feel sorry for you. The general feeling is that no one should be alone on Thanksgiving, not even British people who have barely heard of the holiday.
Wednesday T minus 1: This is the busiest travel day of the year in America as everyone is scrambling to get to their relatives’ houses. The news channels are all running stories about delays on roads and at airports. The correct thing to say to an American on Wednesday as they head out of the workplace towards home is “Have a happy Thanksgiving.” Keep it simple.
Thanksgiving morning: This is just like any other morning, except your host, and everyone around them is very stressed out about the preparations for the big meal. Offer to help, but get out of the way.
Thanksgiving early afternoon: Americans traditionally watch their version of football, which you know as “American football.” This year for example, there are 10 games on US television. Pretend to care or you risk offending your host. Don’t worry if you can’t follow what’s going on- it’s mostly just TV adverts anyway.
Thanksgiving meal is served: This is the only part of this holiday that has some formality to it. No one is meant to eat until everyone is served, and in many households, the meal is preceded by a prayer, where everyone holds hands. Now I know this kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, Mr or Ms British person, but don’t get all secular and judgmental on us. Sometimes this is the only prayer of the year a family will do together, and generally, it’s all about giving thanks, not asking for God to smite Europeans and sodomites. Many households will skip the prayer and ask people to recount the things that they’re thankful for. It can be a very moving moment- you see, Americans sometimes have these things called “feelings” – it’s not easy to explain what these are to a British person, but, “feelings” are kind of the opposite of the detachment, sarcasm and irony that your people indulge in on most occasions. Try to participate to the best of your ability.
Thanksgiving meal: Serving times may vary, but generally Americans eat Thanksgiving dinner sometime between noon and 4pm, or sometimes later. Traditional items served include:
- A whole turkey
- Stuffing- this is generally more “bready” than British stuffing, but there is a wide variety of stuffing recipes in the states and this is perhaps the most personal part of the meal. If you don’t get the stuffing right, there will be complaints.
- Cranberry sauce for the turkey
- Mashed potatoes
- Green beans (sometimes as a casserole)
- Dinner rolls or corn bread (yes, that’s bread made from corn meal).
- Sweet potatoes, often called candied yams. Some households serve these with small marshmallows. Remember you are a guest, and marshmallows are important to Americans. Do NOT scoff at them and remember that at Xmas meals, you eat sausage wrapped in bacon, which we could easily scoff at, but we wouldn’t. Because it’s Thanksgiving.
- Pies: Pumpkin, apple and pecan are the most common.
Post Thanksgiving meal: Everyone talks about how full they are and repeats the apocryphal story that you get tired after Thanksgiving because of all the tryptophan in the turkey (and not because you just stuffed your face). Pretend to be interested in this false factoid.
Thanksgiving evening: This is where you, my anonymous British friend, will be a bit more comfortable, as now the sports and prayers are all done, and most Americans proceed to get very drunk.
Friday, the day after Thanksgiving: Known as “black Friday,” this is the start of the Christmas season and the biggest shopping day of the year in America. You’ve probably seen footage of crowds of fat and desperate Americans smashing through doors to get 10% off TVs at their local Walmart store. Yes, it’s horrible, and it does really happen. But you had a lovely time yesterday didn’t you? A pure, lovely day of gratitude and companionship that had nothing to do with consumerism or shopping. Remember that as you resume your innate and smug sense of superiority over your American friends. If you keep your mouth shut about it, maybe they’ll invite you back next year.