Happy Thanksgiving – Here’s Why We Urgently Need A Similar Holiday Of Our Own In Britain

The first Thanksgiving

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 DayIndependence 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.

Thanksgiving Proclamation - President Abraham Lincoln - 1863

Happy Thanksgiving

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Quote For The Day

From Conor Friedersdorf’s excellent interview of writer and professor David Hillel Gelernter:

Everyone knows that we live in politically superheated times; partisanship feels more bitter and more personal than it ever has in my lifetime.

There are many reasons, but here is one: we all know that faith in the Judeo-Christian religions is dramatically weaker than it used to be. But human beings are religious animals, and most will find an alternative if the conventional choices are gone.

The readiest replacement nowadays for lost traditional religion is political ideology. But a citizen with faith in a political position, instead of rational belief, is a potential disaster for democracy. A religious believer can rarely be argued out of his faith in any ordinary conversational give-and-take. His personality is more likely to be wrapped up with his religion than with any mere political program. When a person’s religion is attacked, he’s more likely to take it personally and dislike (or even hate) the attacker than he is in the case of mere political attacks or arguments. Thus, the collapse of traditional religion within important parts of the population is one cause of our increasingly poisoned politics. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.

Turn back to the generation after the Second World War. The collapse of religion is well underway, but there is another alternate religion at hand: art.

Think of the extraordinary blaze-up of art in America in the postwar years, especially the 1950s and first half of the ‘60s: painting above all; choreography in New York (Balanchine, Robbins, the American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey and other regional companies); serious music, led by Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts broadcast  nationwide by CBS; intense interest in new American novelists; Frost; the Americanized Auden, Eliot and Delmore Schwartz; the great quartet of European masters as seen from the US: Picasso and Matisse, Giacometti and Chagall; the European film as an art form (Swedish, Italian and French––Hitchcock’s Birds, for that matter, opened in the early ‘60s at MOMA); in the architecture of the Americans Wright and Kahn and Eero Saarinen, and the Europeans Mies and Corbu and Gropius; in the design of the Eames studio, in the museum show as an event, in drama and the Actor’s Studio; art-books, magazines, posters, high-fidelity audio, Lincoln Center, the Dick van Dyke show; a situation comedy with frequent episodes about the theater, galleries, art films–and on and on.

An astonishing era.

Among much else, it helped politics go down easier. (Only a little easier; but every bit helped.)  Other things did too, of course; and art, as always, was its own reward. But we miss something if we don’t see how the religion of art took pressure off politics.

Nowadays it’s mostly gone. But it doesn’t have to be. Art itself is the reason to bring art back to center stage. But some of the merely incidental benefits might be enormous.

My emphasis in bold.

There is a bucketload of truth in this statement. As anyone who has tried to engage your average pro or anti-Trump or Brexit activist in conversation or debate about politics will attest, reasoned discussion is hard to come by, precisely because faith is now vested in political tribes rather than God. In fact, the politically neutral (or those who refuse to see Donald Trump as either Saint Ronald Reagan 2.0 or Hitler Reborn, Brexit as an unadulterated good or an unprecedented disaster) tend to have the hardest time of all – the new atheists and agnostics.

Partisans on either side are increasingly being defriended, blocked or ignored in the real world by those incapable of making the leap of empathy required to understand or forgive a vote for the opposing side. But agnostics and those in the middle face the ire of both sides, incredulous that they can neither see the self-evident worth of the “right” side or the existential danger of the “wrong” side.

It is worse now than it was a decade ago under the George W. Bush administration, and by all accounts it was worse then than it was before under Clinton, Bush senior or Reagan.

Most analysis of this phenomenon of polarisation and mutual incomprehension had focused on the impact that the internet and social media have had on our political discourse, and many of these discussions are valid. But Gelernter takes a different approach and reveals another, more sociological explanation for the current toxic atmosphere – one made all the more profound because of what it says about humanity rather than the technology we now use.

And who can deny Gelernter’s point? As religion and faith have receded, something has indeed taken its place. But it is no longer art, or that wonderful flourishing of high culture that the West saw in the 1950s and 60s. Now it is often decidedly low culture and politics which we elevate above all else – and particularly, for many people, the divisive and grievance-laden politics of identity and victimhood.

But I would add that science also helped to cushion what Gelernter calls the “collapse of religion”. Humanity was inspired by the space race and the Apollo Program – “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” – and great shared human endeavours such as these. But humanity has not lifted its gaze above low earth orbit since 1972, and while other technological breakthroughs such as the mobile computing and the internet have revolutionised our lives, they have on balance tended to fuel the individualist and consumerist aspects of our society rather than the collective and the communal, let alone the spiritual.*

What is becoming manifestly clear is that we need something – be it a new flourishing of art (as Gelernter desires) or a great scientific or technological challenge – to help us once again lift our eyes above our own selves, circumstances and identity groups. More than a few political activists together in a room tend to quickly become insufferable. A whole society comprised entirely of such activists would be so much worse, as we are now starting to discover.

We need a common challenge or faith – whether it is a rekindling of the gentle patriotism spoken of by Andrew Sullivan or a tangible project of some kind – to remind us that we are more than the sum of our political opinions. And this means we need political leaders who dare to demand something of us rather than flatter us and promise us bountiful riches for no effort.

And so this blog asks again: set us a challenge.

 

*In Britain, mindless worship of the National Health Service – as exhibited today by more than 200,000 people who marched through central London in support of the NHS, demanding that more taxpayer money be shovelled into a healthcare system they venerate and claim to be the “envy of the world” despite the awkward fact that no other country has tried to replicate the NHS and many succeed in delivering better healthcare outcomes – has become the closest we have to a national religion. And while this might certainly count as blind faith or religious fervour, it does nothing meaningful to bring us together as a society.

 

apollo-program-nasa

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