Most Brits probably do not know or care that Thursday 23rd November is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States of America. Yet many of us are getting ready to hunt for bargains and pre-Christmas deals on Black Friday.
Take a trip to your local big box superstore – or virtually anywhere online – in the next day or so and you will be treated to wall-to-wall promotions about the upcoming Black Friday sales. “Get ready for Black Friday!” scream the advertisements, as one company after another tempts you with sweet promises of unbelievable savings. Yes, Black Friday is coming to Britain – again.
And so it has been for the past few years now. We in Britain have successfully imported the commercially lucrative, post-coital rump of a cherished American national holiday – Thanksgiving – while neatly skipping over all the pesky fundamentals that give it real meaning: you know, those pesky things like love, family, gratitude and patriotism, tiresome distractions that don’t give us an excuse to shop and which will never generate a good Return On Investment.
This is as strong a contender for Tasteless Corporate Act of the Year (Large Retailer category) as we are likely to witness this side of Christmas. And we Brits have certainly thrown ourselves into the spirit, crushing one another in the stampede for discounted TVs and getting into fights which have to be broken up by the police.
But apparently – and rather gratifyingly – a number of Brits have started to recognise Thanksgiving too, in our own semi-comprehending way (I’ve seen Yorkshire pudding and roast beef being served at some British Thanksgiving dinners, which is definitely cultural appropriation gone wrong), with retailers now stocking up with pumpkin pie and other traditional Thanksgiving fare in time for the holiday.
Full disclosure: I’m married to a Texan girl, so our household observes both British and American holidays – which means that Jenny gains Boxing Day while I gain Thanksgiving. And for the past five years we have held a Thanksgiving dinner the weekend closest to the day itself, and invited as many friends as we’ve been able to squeeze into our succession of tiny shoebox apartments. I’m responsible for the turkey, Jenny takes charge of the stuffing and the sweet potato casserole (you mock the idea of marshmallows on top of sugared, spiced sweet potato until you’ve tried it) and we split everything else between us with our flatmate.
And if I may say so myself, this annual event has become roaringly popular, to the extent that who gets invited and who doesn’t quite make the cut has become a rather delicate political dance. This year there will be fourteen of us squeezed into an improbably small space, and all fourteen places were snapped up as soon as my wife sent the Facebook invite back in April.
But not everybody is happy that Thanksgiving is gaining a foothold in Britain, including Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn who argues that just like American GIs after the Second World War, Thanksgiving has outstayed its welcome on our shores:
Yet until about five minutes ago, none of this madness existed. Like Halloween, another tacky American import which has hijacked Guy Fawkes Night, and about which I wrote recently, both Thanksgiving and Black Friday are now fixtures in our calendars.
Supermarkets tempt us with ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving treats. Colour supplements carry recipes for Thanksgiving dinners. The Sunday Times Magazine this weekend devoted several pages to telling readers how to prepare mouth-watering delights such as pumpkin pie, candied sweet potatoes and green chilli cornbread.
Why? Do the editors imagine that out there in Middle England, people are thinking to themselves: ‘I could murder a slice of green chilli cornbread’?
He goes on to rant:
We don’t celebrate France’s Bastille Day, or Canada Day, or Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). So why the hell should we adopt U.S. holidays?
Apparently it does not occur to Littlejohn that the British may be increasingly curious about Thanksgiving because the very idea of a unifying, non-commercialised national holiday which binds us together as a United Kingdom and calls on us to be thankful rather than petulantly self-entitled is so curiously alien to this country – especially the contemporary Britain of 2017.
A couple of years ago I took part in a TV debate on London Live, arguing that we should absolutely not make the festivals of Eid and Diwali UK public holidays, for fear of muddying the cloudy waters between religion and state yet further:
I was outnumbered, but I made the case as strongly as I could that what Britain desperately needs is a unifying, secular public holiday that can bring us all together as one people – not another cynical, politically correct and divisive nod to multiculturalism.
The intervening years have only proved my point, with ISIS flags flying from London housing estates, disaffected young Muslim teens stealing away from the country which gave them life and liberty to join the Islamic State and deadly terror attacks in London and Manchester. On the domestic front things are little better, with a painfully wide chasm emerging between those of us who voted to leave the European Union and those who wanted us to Remain, those who think that Jeremy Corbyn is a living saint while the Tories are evil on the one hand and people who think the exact opposite on the other.
Meanwhile, increasingly everything is being politicised and dragged into the gravity of our culture war. Only this week greeting card firm Paperchase was in the news after they were bullied by left-wing activists into a grovelling public apology for having dared to advertise in the Daily Mail, thereby prompting an equal (and deserved) reaction against the company from people who are not leftist ideologues.
In short, we in Britain are in desperate need of a reminder that we still have an awful lot in common with our neighbours, even if we vote or worship differently. But the ties that bind us together – frayed for so long by successive referenda, general elections, the culture wars and the toxic swamp that is political social media – need to be continually renewed, even if some of us do find patriotism “problematic“. And what better way to do so than with a national holiday which celebrates something in our rich, shared history of which we can all be proud?
There is no shortage of possibilities. While some seem to enjoy talking down Britain and our substantial contributions to world commerce, art, science and culture, I’m sure that if we put our heads together we might find something in the last few centuries of our national story worth elevating as an occasion of which all Britons can be proud (but please, just not the Fifth of July).
Magna Carta Day (15th June), Trafalgar Day (21st October), VE Day (8th May) or Commonwealth Day (second Monday in March) are just a few possible candidates which are existing days that could be “upgraded” to a UK-wide celebration of quiet patriotism, community service and thanksgiving, and which already have some historic resonance.
Such resonance is important. In the United States, President’s Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving have meaning for all Americans because they are rooted in shared history and not political views, ancestry or sadly-waning Christian faith. The newly arrived immigrant can take up these celebrations immediately upon arrival at no cost to their existing traditions and without any potential religious conflict. And that is exactly what Britain needs right now.
So before you scoff at the idea of our American cousins eating themselves into a stupor for seemingly no good reason, I would ask you to do two things — firstly, spare a thought for me as I try to avoid burning a massive turkey that barely fits inside our oven while also cooking it sufficiently well that I don’t send fourteen angry people to the hospital with food poisoning. But secondly and more importantly, take some time to reflect on the reasons that you – and that we all – have for being thankful this year, and on the many traits and aspirations which we still have in common, even amidst Brexit, the culture war and the politicisation of everything.
As Abraham Lincoln – the president who in 1863 fixed the observance of Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday in November – implored in his first inaugural address:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.
After another year in which the idea of what it means to be British has become increasingly muddled and uncertain, let’s humble ourselves and dare to take a lesson from our former American colonies. Let us find inspiration in our storied history, our rich culture and also from within our own hearts. Let us find that elusive common thread of Britishness that should unite us all, transcending race and religion and politics.
I would argue that maybe some of the reason that more British people are starting to notice and observe Thanksgiving as well as the Black Friday sales we have imported from America is that deep down we subconsciously yearn for the sense of gratitude, social solidarity and civic-mindedness which Thanksgiving brings, and acutely feel the lack anything similar in our own national life.
So let’s change that.
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