Observations of an Expat: Thanksgiving – Made in Britain

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

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.

By Tom Arms

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.

World View - Observations of an ExpatWorld Review

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Tom Arms

Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democratic Voice and author of the Encyclopedia of the Cold War and the recently published “America Made in Britain.”




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