~ Posted by Mark Vanhoenacker, November 26th 2009

July 4th is an American celebration that foreigners have little trouble getting their heads around. Flags flying, hamburgers frying, bombs bursting in airthe Fourth fits right in to most easy stereotypes about the states.

Having lived in London for nearly a decade, I’ve found the other quintessential American holiday, Thanksgiving, is much more likely to generate confusion. Since most of my English friends seem to have studied far more American history than I ever have, I did not expect to have to explain Thanksgiving to them. No gifts. No cards. No elaborate decorations, save for a gourd centrepiece or two.

Thanksgiving is far less commercialised than other American public holidays, and as secular or religious as you like. It is also a nice speed-bump before the Christmas rush, a trait I never fully appreciated until I moved to a city where Christmas starts in early September.  

It’s exactly that shared history and culture that makes Thanksgiving a bit of a muddle. For instance, the 1621 Thanksgiving that Americans commemorate was held by thoroughly English pilgrims in New England. But the feast was an obvious milestone on the road to American independence in 1776 (or 1783, depending on your perspective).

The traditional Thanksgiving menu is even more of a minefield. English palates are well acquainted with turkey, potatoes, autumn vegetables and cranberries, but they are eaten at Christmas. This makes it difficult to convince guests that they’re enjoying a uniquely American meal, though most of this food is indigenous to the Americas. (Two countries separated by a common menu, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw.)  

A popular online supermarket here attempts to assist expats by offering a “Thanksgiving” section on its website. But like the Tokyo department store that put a crucified Santa in its Christmas window, something’s been lost in translation. The supermarket manages a few accurate notes–turkey, cranberry, cornbread–but also recommends Lucky Charms breakfast cereal, steak sauce and Marshmallow Fluff. I’d have something to say about easy stereotypes, were I not so excited to learn that Crunchy Jif peanut butter has made landfall on the isle. 

Conversely, Thanksgiving here can occasionally be a little too authentic. One year our turkey arrived only partially plucked. The Pilgrims would have simply asked the nearest Wampanoag for some guidance, but we were forced to frantically consult the internet. And my English partner, now an old hand at Thanksgiving, enthusiastically makes cranberry sauce using fresh cranberries from my native Massachusetts. It’s great, but the cranberry sauce of my Yankee childhood was in fact the gelatinous stuff that bears the imprint of the can from which it was extracted. 

Then there are the vegetarians, who now outnumber the omnivores among our usual Thanksgiving gang here. I’ve been tempted to say that no one ever devoured a big bowl of sprouts and then set to work building a city upon a hill.  

I’m equally aware that as an immigrant now myself, this is my own chance to mix the Old World with the New. What could be more American than that? So yes to eggplant, and to aubergine as well. And a big no to the gourd centrepieces. Ditto for pumpkin pie, which I’ve never liked very much, and which no one here will miss.

Mark Vanhoenacker is an American journalist living in England, writing for The New York Times, Slate and the Independent

Image The Library of Congress