Observations of an Expat: Thanksgiving – Made in Britain

Thanksgiving is the most American of American holidays. Or is it?

Like so many other American traditions and customs, Thanksgiving’s origins have its roots on the eastern side of the Atlantic.

Let’s start with the Puritans. They were English. They were religious dissidents who arrived on the shores of New England mainly from East Anglia via an unhappy sojourn in the Netherlands.

The beliefs, history, philosophy, politics and social structures were English. In 1620 there was no such thing as an “American” other than the Native Americans that they eventually supplanted. In fact, they were as English as apple pie, which they also brought with them from Britain.

As English men and women they were used to the annual British custom of Harvest Festival in which thanks was given to God for a harvest which would hopefully see people through to spring.

The Puritans were exceedingly devout and so were in the habit of giving thanks at regular intervals. In October 1621 they had cause to be grateful. They arrived in November 1620 ill-prepared for the rigours of a New England winter. As a result nearly half died.

To make matters worse, the seeds the Puritans brought from England failed to take root in foreign soil. They were facing a second winter of disaster when the Native American Squanto walked out of the forest, which brings us to the next English influence. Squanto—3,000 mile from Albion—spoke perfect English.

He had been kidnapped years before by English explorers and taken back to their homeland—probably via a short period of slavery in Spain. He mastered the English language and may even have met Pocahontas before catching a lift on an English ship to Newfoundland from whence he worked his way back to Massachusetts Bay.

When he eventually arrived home, Squanto discovered that his entire tribe had been wiped out by plague carried by English fishermen. He was forced to link up with a rival tribe who never fully accepted him until he proved his worth as an early practitioner of shuttle diplomacy between the Puritans and the local Pokahonet tribe.

With Squanto as interpreter, the Pokahonets taught the Pilgrims which native American seeds to plant and how to fertilise and cultivate them. Perhaps as important, he introduced trade and prevented war between the two sides. The result was a three-day feast in October 1621 attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Puritans. This is generally recognised as the first Thanksgiving, although Virginia claims they beat them to the rum punch in 1610.

The culinary centrepiece of the New England feast was, of course, the turkey. This brings us to another British influence. Contrary to popular history, the Puritans did not discover the delights of the flightless bird. It had been a popular dish in Britain for almost a century before the Puritans crossed the Atlantic.

The turkey was introduced to the British Isles by William Strickland who picked up half a dozen of the birds while exploring the New England coast in 1526. When he returned to England, Strickland set up a turkey farm which was so successful that he was able to secure a seat in parliament, a coat of arms and a stately home. The Strickland family crest includes a “turkey-cock in his pride proper.”

For a long time, Americans’ celebration of Thanksgiving was a hit and miss affair as it moved around the calendar according to which colony (later state) one lived in. Because of the association with the Puritans, it was celebrated mainly in New England and largely ignored in the South.

Its national acceptance is owed to the efforts of one of America’s first women journalists, Sarah Joseph Hale. She argued that an annual Thanksgiving feast would provide a common occasion on which all Americans—Southerners and Northerners—could agree, celebrate and enjoy.

Abraham Lincoln concurred, and in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, declared Thanksgiving a national holiday “to heal the wounds of the nation.”

Since then Thanksgiving has gradually morphed into America’s number one holiday. Many say that it beats both Christmas and the Fourth of July. Its success can be attributed to its totally apolitical message of friends, family and fellowship. It is equally enjoyed by Democrats and Republicans; Blacks, Whites, Latinos and Asians; Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists and even Zoroastrians.

It is a holiday which divided America desperately needs.

* Tom Arms is the Foreign Editor of Liberal Democratic Voice. His book “America Made in Britain” has recently been published by Amberley Books. He is also the author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War.”

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6 Comments

  • John Marriott 27th Nov '21 - 9:58am

    I’m amazed that ‘Thanksgiving’ (“For what?” I am sure some of our more liberal minded US friends might be asking at the moment) hasn’t become part of our ‘celebrations’ over here as well.

    When I was growing up, things like Halloween, ‘Trick or Treat’?’ Black Friday, School Proms, to name but a few, were unheard of, like open plan schools and burger bars (although Wimpey was just beginning to make an impact). We had ‘penny for the guy’, the January sales and Speechdays in Summer, without gowns and mortar boards, however. In fact, as far as external exams were concerned, nobody made much of a deal of it – no pictures of predominantly blond and attractive females clutching exam certificates and embracing each other.

    Yes, I AM a miserable old so and so; but do I want to return to an age of polio, TB, back street abortions, ‘know your placery’? Of course not. Yes, I know that we have relied on the USA in two world wars and still speak more or less the same language. I guess that, when push comes to shove, we still do. I just wish that some of us would wake up to the fact that it isn’t all perfect on the other side of the pond. If they do, they need to speak to some of my US relations.

    They used to say that, when Detroit sneezes, the rest of the US catches a cold. Well, the US is currently not too well. So does that mean we all should be reaching for the medicine?

    Well, that’s my Saturday morning rant over. Have a nice day!

  • I am with you John, proud to be a miserable old git, it keeps me going!!!

  • Peter Chambers 27th Nov '21 - 12:30pm

    Halloween was a thing in Cumbria when I was growing up. It was not commercial nor Americanized, and there was no merchandise in the shops. So no imported pumpkins and you had to make your own lanterns from turnips bought from a farm. The surplus material usually went into a stew.
    Now you can but a lot of plastic tat from a shop and throw it in a bin the next day. Children knock on the door and politely ask for sweets, which are not good for them.

  • We certainly had Halloween where I lived in the North East back in the ’60s/ It was generally called “mischief night” and usually involved either shoving excrement through peoples’ letterboxes, or leaving it on their doorsteps. We would not have been persuaded from doing this by a paltry offering of sweets! The acceptance of bribes is definitely an American influence.

    In other news I read that form New Labour Sports Minister Richard Caborn has described shin kicking as “barbaric”… nope! Don’t agree with him either.

    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10240921/National-Shinkicking-Championships-makes-comeback.html

    I’ve never quite understood why it is that when things happen in mainland Europe they’re considered to be interesting local customs, but when they happen here they’re barbaric,

    Here is the Calcio Storico Fiorentino. They’ve even had Popes play this game. Enjoy. There really is a lot more skill involved than many might think.

  • Sorry for any grammatical mistakes – tooth extraction! Rum!

  • On the subject of Thanksgiving, maybe not everybody is quite as enamoured as the Tom Arms suggests.

    https://blog.nativehope.org/what-does-thanksgiving-mean-to-native-americans

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