A Brit's Guide to Thanksgiving

By Spencer Hart on at

Gather around ye merry Pilgrims, today the US is in the throes of Thanksgiving celebrations, so don your buckled hats, grab a turkey, and learn all about this American tradition with Giz UK’s Turkey Day crib sheet.

First, let’s take a look at how it all started...

The history of Thanksgiving dates back to 1620, when a ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers on an adventure to the New World. After a treacherous 66-day journey, the voyagers dropped anchor near Cape Cod, and eventually crossed Massachusetts Bay. The Pilgrims, as they’re now known, began work establishing a village, also, unimaginatively, named Plymouth.

The first winter was pretty brutal, only half of the Mayflower’s passengers survived. In March, the settlers were visited by an Abenaki Indian, who surprised them by greeting the group in English. He later returned with another Native American, Squanto, who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. It became apparent that Squanto had escaped to London, and then managed to return to America aboard an exploratory ship.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Native Indians taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish and avoid poisonous plants. Pretty basic skills, but essential to survival. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe.

In November 1621, the Pilgrims successfully harvested their first crop of corn, so Governor William Bradford organised a celebratory feast. Both Europeans and Native Americans attended, and it’s now thought of as the first Thanksgiving, lasting three days.

For more than two hundred years, the day was celebrated differently and randomly by individual colonies. However, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared that a national Thanksgiving Day would be held during the final Thursday of November.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Canada also celebrates Thanksgiving, and the nation actually did so 40 years before its louder, more aggressive neighbours. Canadian Thanksgiving is on the second Monday in October.

Food, so much food

Obviously, as it’s America, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be a celebration without food, and our pals across the pond certainly know how to put on a spread.

Thanksgiving is just as important as Christmas day, so the food has to be right for the occasion. The usual fare centres on a fat roasted turkey, with stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, buttered rolls, gravy, green beans, and squash. By the early 1900s, people started experimenting and came up with dishes like sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows. Yum.

Image credit: Flickr

For dessert, you’re looking at a pie, either filled with pumpkin, apple, mincemeat, sweet potato or pecans.

All of the food is native to the New World, and very similar to what would have been consumed at the first Thanksgiving feast.

Won’t somebody please think of the turkeys?

Thanksgiving can be quite brutal, especially if you’re a turkey, with over 45 million birds being eaten over the holiday bonanza.

Every year, though, the President ‘pardons’ at least one turkey in a special ceremony held at The White House. The process is rather odd, and only dates back to 1989, when George H.W Bush formalised the tradition of saving a turkey.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Eighty birds are randomly selected at birth; the two largest and best behaved are then chosen to be pardoned. The birds are named in a competition for school children, then presented to the president the day before Thanksgiving. The President says a few words, makes a few jokes, then spares the birds, who are sent to live out the rest of their lives on a nearby farm in Virginia.

Almost makes up for the deaths of the other 44,999,998 turkeys... doesn’t it?

Giant Balloons

A number of big cities in the US celebrate Thanksgiving with a parade, but the most famous and well-known is Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which takes place in New York. It features giant balloons, floats, and marching bands.

The balloons come in three classes: small, medium-sized, and flipping massive. The flipping massive ones are the most famous and require 90 handlers to stop a giant Sonic entering the stratosphere, for example.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade dates back to 1924, when immigrant workers at Macy’s were keen to celebrate the holiday in a more European way.

Other large parades include Detroit, and Philadelphia, the latter of which is actually the oldest of such celebrations.

Hut, hut, hike!

American football, or simply ‘football’ if you’re an American is an integral part of the holiday, just like Boxing Day football (or 'soccer', if you’re an American), is here.

It was started by the Detroit Lions in 1934 as a way to promote the sport in a baseball-mad city. Virtually every level of football, from amateur to professional, is played on the day, or the following weekend.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Is there a UK equivalent?

Of course there is! But naturally, our equivalent is a little more subdued. Remember being in primary school, and collecting a load of tinned food for handing out to the community? That’s it, Harvest Festival, sometimes known as November Harvest.

And, just like tomorrow's Black Friday event, Thanksgiving is also making its way across the Pond. There’s a number of places in London which will be serving up a Turkey feast, including The Goring in Knightsbridge, Ma’Plucker in Soho, and 108 Brasserie in Marylebone.

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