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Should we be thankful for Thanksgiving, or is it a Turkey?

Connor Cochrane describes the history behind Thanksgiving, giving a personal insight, as well as relating it to other festive holidays.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday celebrated on the 4th Thursday of every November.

The tradition is, in some part, inspired by a 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation, where the Plymouth settlers held a harvest feast with Native Americans after a successful growing season, with help from the local natives.

Prayers of thanks and special thanksgiving ceremonies are common amongst almost all religions after harvests (and at other times), and is rooted in English traditions dating from the Protestant Reformation.

My first experience with Thanksgiving came in my first year at Sussex. It was my newly acquired American girlfriend’s first thanksgiving away from home, let alone the first one across the sea.

Hopping on the 25 bus to Sainsbury’s and buying a turkey might not seem like the most romantic thing, but for an incredibly lazy student with a little Grinch heart, it was alright.

To corroborate this, apparently I left halfway through cooking, to go to the video game society like a big ol’ nerd.

Nevertheless, leaving my girlfriend to cook the turkey herself, apparently made her proud of herself, (“it was a huge rite of passage! I felt like an adult!”), so let’s pretend that was my intention.

The result was certainly not a traditional thanksgiving dinner, being the product of someone who only ever cooked curry and pot noodles.

I tore into the turkey with my bare hands and ate it like a wild animal, my partner’s parents watching with horror over Skype.

All I had previously picked up through osmosis about Thanksgiving, was turkey and native Americans. I was previously insecure that the holiday came from negative roots.

Though a notable story about Thanksgiving centres around pilgrims and native Americans eating together, the origins of the holiday predates this and are literally about giving thanks.

In this sense, it should be compared to Christmas, and how the holiday can mean many things to different people: giving; religion; family; friends; capitalism; whatever.

Thanksgiving for my girlfriend is a big family affair, and we probably couldn’t quite replicate that atmosphere with just myself and a screen.

She says: “it’s a pretty popular sitcom joke that thanksgiving dinners are awkward because you have to see all your relatives and try not to argue about politics or judge their relationships – but I’ve never felt that way.”

A year later, and a year into my long distance relationship, my usual hatred for tradition seemed to malfunction and I wanted to make Thanksgiving into a thing for me.

The results this time were much better, especially considering I was flying fully solo.

One housemate did manage to come into the kitchen on time to cut the turkey for me, as the old tearing in with the hands trick turned out to burn quite a bit.

That year my house, as many I’m sure do, celebrated Christmas by cooking a dinner together. Having the two meals so close together did highlight the similarities.

Essentially both meals are just what we would call a roast or Sunday dinner, with a bit more effort put in because it is for the whole family.

Part of this comes from Americans completely associating the turkey with Thanksgiving; while we usually eat the bird at Christmas, they very rarely do, and seem to put less emphasis on the Christmas meal in general.

“There’s not really a traditional Christmas meal here – ham, lamb, pork loin, anything fancy will do… Thanksgiving meal is definitely more important. It’s the point of the whole day, Christmas dinner is basically an afterthought and it’s mostly about the tree and presents.”

Also, doing it yourself as a student must lose nearly all of the magic kids in America might get when they come up to a big table and see tons of food.

My girlfriend argues that thanksgiving “isn’t just a younger sibling to Christmas it’s a whole celebration of all things autumn and ‘harvesty’.”

For me the year just doesn’t need a November holiday. I like having the room to breath between Halloween and Christmas, to just feel autumnal, without tradition or ritual attached.

The two holidays when taken secularly really don’t seem to have much difference to me: it’s about family and food.

One thing they do have is hand turkeys! They draw around their hands and then turn the outlines into a image of a turkey.

Apparently you are supposed to watch American Football on thanksgiving. I wouldn’t. They also have parades for capitalism.

In terms of Thanksgiving’s relevance for us in the UK, Black Friday seems to be having a far more infectious presence, online and on high streets. Black Friday is a day of huge sales when Thanksgiving ends, signalling the beginning of Christmas festivities.

However, even in America, Black Friday seems to be the more relevant event, as in some cases it has begun during Thanksgiving. Christmas also has priority in the eyes of businesses.

We may be irritated when Christmas decorations are up early, and my girlfriend says: “[grumbles]… that they should wait till after Thanksgiving.”

Being not as old and far reaching as Christmas, Thanksgiving has not developed the power that Christmas has to dominate a whole month (and more: here, Christmas food and decorations hit the shops and high street just as Halloween ends, if not before).

My girlfriend cannot imagine a culture without Thanksgiving, and thinks it should be proliferated, saying: “it’s a loving welcoming holiday that should be celebrated everywhere.”

For her, and many other Americans, Thanksgiving and Christmas seem very distinguished, but in the UK our version of Christmas seems to fuse the two together anyway.

It is good that the USA has it’s own holiday that can form part of its identity. For me I am still deciding whether or not to cook a turkey this year.

I am afraid of the effort, the deja vu it will impose on Christmas meals, and that it won’t resemble a real family Thanksgiving, not to mention that my anti-tradition compulsion has kicked back in.

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