What is Thanksgiving All About? A Guide for the Brits

One week to go until its time to celebrate one of my favourite holidays – Thanksgiving!

Being a yank in England this time of year is not easy… aside from the growing homesickness, lack of pumpkin-flavoured food items and absence of college football, Brits just don’t get it. Thanksgiving, like other Americanized holidays have grown in the UK (London especially) since I first arrived on these shores nearly twelve years ago. But still I frequently find myself exclaiming my excitement only to be received by quizzical looks and odd questions.

While I’ve been holding back my excitement for weeks (ok MONTHS), I’ve been asked so many questions that I figured I'd pull together the facts along with a few of my favourite Thanksgiving traditions! 

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

FACT 1 : The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims and Indians in 1621

But at the time they weren’t looking to create a national holiday (heck there was no nation!) – they were simply celebrating a good year of harvest.

In September 1620, the Pilgrims set sail from Plymouth, England for New England. The crossing lasted a treacherous 66 days and landed them in Massachusetts just as a typically horrendous New England winter set in.  Only half of the colonists survived to see spring.

They were fortunate to be greeted by Squanto (an English speaking Native American!) who along with his tribe taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, avoid poisonous plants and basically survive the new landscape.

That autumn they experienced their first successful harvest and decided to celebrate with a three day festival. (Note: this is a VERY abbreviated rendition of what happened).

FACT 2: Thanksgiving was not an annual celebration for years to come

The Pilgrims celebrated their harvest with a feast, but there was no continuity to the date and event. People would celebrate as and when they saw fit. 

Over 150 years later, in 1789, that George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation – to celebrate the end of the American Revolution and give thanks for independence. Several New England states adopted a Thanksgiving Day but they were not consistent, and it was still relatively unheard of in the South.

It wasn’t until prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale (who coined ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’) campaigned to create Thanksgiving as a national holiday – a feat that took 36 years!

Thank goodness for SJH, her turkey and her pumpkin pie! 

Thank goodness for SJH, her turkey and her pumpkin pie! 

FACT 3: Turkey wasn’t served at that first Thanksgiving

In fact, its understood that the Pilgrims and Indians dined on venison – not something likely to be associated with Thanksgiving these days!

Other famous traditional recipes – like stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie – were again thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale.

FACT 4: Thanksgiving is NOT bigger than Christmas

No, no its not. This is probably the question and assumption that I hear the most!

However it is said that more Americans celebrate Thanksgiving than Christmas – but this is mainly do to the fact that Christmas is a Christian-focused holiday. While Thanksgiving does have some religious ties, it is now celebrated as one day to give thanks and spend with loved ones, whether that involves religion or not.

A traditional thanksgiving meal - wear loose trousers!

A traditional thanksgiving meal - wear loose trousers!

FACT 5: Thanksgiving dinner is not ‘just a roast’

It’s so much more! Yes it’s decadent. But it’s once a year, so you get a pass to indulge. Most families eat turkey, accompanied by cranberry sauce (or relish or jelly). But it’s really all about the sides. Most are vegetable based but with shocking nutritional value. That’s because most dishes are cooked with heavy amounts of butter, cream, cheese and/or bacon. Gluttonous, yes very much so.

FACT 6: Candied yams are delicious

Okay, okay this is completely subjective. But my personal opinion is that once a year I will dine on this oddly delicious delicacy and enjoy it.

What are candied yams you ask? Basically sweet potatoes mixed with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, butter, brown sugar and traditional topped with marshmallows. Strange? Yes. But oh so good!

President obama wishes tom the turkey a peaceful retirement

President obama wishes tom the turkey a peaceful retirement

FACT 7: The Presidential turkey pardon only started in 1989

President George H. W. Bush pardoned the first turkey and preceding leaders have followed in his steps, making it a time-honoured photo op. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to it, it’s just one of those things that happened and then stuck!

FACT 8: The arrival of Santa at the Macy’s Parade marks the start of Christmas

The parade itself started when immigrant workers at Macy’s were keen to celebrate the American holiday but also bring in some of their own traditions.

Now it’s a full on national pastime to watch – complete with oversized air balloons of comical characters, the bouncing Radio City Rockettes and of course the grand finale is at the close of the parade when Santa arrives on his sleigh!

the greatest job on earth? 

the greatest job on earth? 

And some Thanksgiving traditions explained…

TRADITION 1: You eat turkey

It’s just the way it is. In fact 1/6 of ALL turkey consumed in the US is consumed on Thanksgiving. But the methods of cooking very – you can roast, grill, slow cook and even deep fry.

TRADITION 2: You watch and/or play football

It’s kind of like how in the UK there’s always Boxing Day games. It’s one of those things that go hand and hand.

just because they're working doesn't mean they'll miss out on turkey and all the trimmings

just because they're working doesn't mean they'll miss out on turkey and all the trimmings

TRADITION 3: You proclaim what you’re thankful for

Before you eat, everyone goes around the table and says what they’re thankful for. I make my British friends do this and at first they were horrified, but it always without a doubt ends with hugs, happy tears and happy feelings.

Hopefully that clears some things up. If you’re one of the many Brits who plan on attending a Thanksgiving celebration this year, you can astound your fellow diners with a few facts and traditions. I'll be posting some of my pre and post Thanksgiving snaps next week! 

Any other questions or myths you want dispelled? Just comment below!

I’m thankful for many things – one of which is that you’ve read this far! Here’s a little video that never fails to make me giggle…