‘The American festival we all should celebrate’

Truly thankful: In the 1940s, US artist Normal Rockwell produced oil paintings of families at Thanksgiving.

Should Thanksgiving go global? It seems like a holiday that’s as American as pumpkin pie. But there are variants of this day all around the world, revolving around the concept of gratitude.

Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, Americans travel from far and wide to gather with their families.

Around the table, each person says one thing they are grateful for over the past year, before tucking into a feast of pumpkin pie, yams and, most importantly, the Thanksgiving turkey. Bellies stuffed, it’s time to settle down and watch the football.

The origins of Thanksgiving stretch back to 1621, when early English pilgrims in the Plymouth colony, modern-day Massachusetts, invited the Wampanoag native tribe to share in a feast giving thanks for the harvest. They probably ate wild turkey, a smaller ancestor of the modern bird.

Communal feasts of gratitude sprung up sporadically in the following years across different states, but it was not until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.

In fact, the story of the 1621 feast was not widely regarded as the “first Thanksgiving” until the 1920s, when it was spread through school books to present an idealised version of Americans.

Native American writer Sean Sherman says that the Thanksgiving story “neglected to mention the amount of death, destruction and land-grabbing that occurs against the first peoples, setting the tone for the next 200 years”.

Indeed, native populations were decimated by violent wars with colonists and European diseases. It has even been suggested that the settlers deliberately gave the natives smallpox-infected blankets to drive them off the land.

For most Americans, Thanksgiving remains a time to count your blessings with family and friends.

London-bred editor Sarah Ivens was sceptical about the holiday when she first moved to the US.

“Being open and vulnerable is something we often ridicule Americans for but, I confess, I was genuinely moved.”

Germany, Canada, Japan, Liberia, Granada and the Netherlands all have their own variations on Thanksgiving.

There is increasing psychological evidence that well-being and health are improved by taking more time “to think about what we’ve got to be grateful for”.

Should we all join in?

Happy holidays!

No way, say some. The nations of the world have enough of their own traditions and holidays. You can be appreciative of your life and your family without the need to sit around and celebrate it once a year. Besides, why would we want to take inspiration from a holiday that is inextricably linked with the oppression of native Americans?

We have so much to be thankful for, respond others, and we’d all be happier if we remembered that more often. A Thanksgiving holiday would be a time to get together with people we love and focus on what’s important, free from the commercialised present-buying of Christmas. It could also be more inclusive of all religions and cultures.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to celebrate Thanksgiving?
  2. What historical event would a British Thanksgiving commemorate?

Activities

  1. Write down three ways to thank someone without saying “thank you”. Share your ideas with the class.
  2. Write a page about a person — it could be a family member or friend — who has helped to make you who you are today. Explain who they are, and what they mean to you. In what ways do they make you feel grateful?

Some People Say...

“Thanksgiving Day is the one day that is purely American.”

O. Henry (1862-1910), US short story writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November each year. According to traditional stories, the first Thanksgiving happened when early pilgrims shared a feast with a native American tribe in 1621, although it did not become a national holiday for over 200 years. In a more recent tradition, a president has “pardoned” one turkey, each year since 1989.
What do we not know?
Whether Thanksgiving will ever truly catch on in the UK. Figures suggest that one in six Britons now celebrate Thanksgiving but, while the trend is spreading, it is yet to go mainstream. It is also not known whether these people have pre-existing links to the US, which might explain why they choose to mark it.

Word Watch

Football
Special American football games are held on Thanksgiving. For decades, the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions have hosted Thanksgiving games at their respective grounds.
Pilgrims
In 1620, the Mayflower ship arrived in the New World from Plymouth, carrying English puritans fleeing persecution.
Wampanoag native tribe
The Wampanoag Indians lived in what is now known as Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the early part of the 17th century. The name means “easterners” and at one point, their population was 12,000. Today, about 3,000 Wampanoag Indians still live in the same region.
Sporadically
Occasionally; at irregular intervals.
Abraham Lincoln
He served as president from 1861 until his assassination in 1865. Lincoln, who led the country through the American Civil War, is one of the most popular US presidents of all time.
Idealised
See in a perfect way; as better than the reality.
Decimated
Kill, destroy or remove a large proportion of.
European diseases
Such as chickenpox, cholera and the common cold.
Blankets
This is unproven. Tens of thousands of Native Americans died during smallpox outbreaks in the 1700s, after the disease arrived from Europe.
One in six
According to a survey by Waitrose in 2014. Commentators suggest the number may be higher now as the trend has spread.

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