Saturday, 24 November 2007


Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate it. I’m an American in London who has no family in this country, and the holiday is all about travelling to spend the four-day weekend with your family. Everyone has much the equivalent of a Christmas dinner on Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday of November, and then they watch the Macy’s parade of giant floating Shrek (and the like) balloons or American football on the telly—not that my family ever did either—and then go brave the crowds in the shops on Friday, which is the biggest shopping day of the year, when the Christmas season is officially declared open. The shops, of course, declare it open much earlier, usually sometime in August these days, which makes me think of Loudon Wainwright III’s song, Suddenly It’s Christmas (see below).

I did not head home this year but booked leave for the Thursday and Friday anyway, as it would have been too depressing to suffer the irritations of work when I should be having a lazy day focused on eating and sloth. Though I missed out on the family/togetherness spirit of the day, other than receiving a few phone calls, it was great to wake up and enjoy a day where I wasn’t feeling pressured to do chores and work, plus I had the advantage of being able to pop to the shops to get more food, whereas at home everything is closed on Thanksgiving day.

I highly recommend that you Brits come up with some sort of holiday to help alleviate the strain of November. Seriously, you guys have so many Bank Holidays in the Spring and summer that one gets in the habit of having a long weekend every few weeks, and then—nothing. Just a long path of incredibly early darkness, a sky permanently painted grey with lots of drizzle….until about April. Christmas helps, but you need to add a few other fun things on which to focus the mind. Your increasing interest in Halloween doesn’t count because that’s a real irritation, a holiday for pagans—by which I mean the teens who bash your door in and demand free food or threaten you, all in the spirit of celebration. Nor am I counting Guy Fawkes Night, another noisy, violent surely pagan celebration that seems to give annoying neighbours free reign to set off incessant, loud fireworks from October through December at 2am, terrifying all pets and wildlife.

But there’s no reason why you Brits can’t adopt Thanksgiving. These were your people who settled in the States, after all. I keep getting asked what it’s all about. It’s about being thankful for all you have at the conclusion of the harvest—or I guess in modern day, what you managed to harvest from Marks, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. We’re all meant to sit down with our extended family and eat turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, pecan pie or pumpkin pie. I’m a veggie who can’t really cook so I had veggie stuffing, roast parsnips and tenderstem broccoli, and since I can’t get pecan or pumpkin pie here, I had cherry pie. Last year, a dear friend at work made me pumpkin pie (well, sweet potato pie—much the same thing), which has ingredients much like my favourite Chai Tea Latté: nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom etc. It’s a shame it’s not easier to get hold of one in London.

I did once, years ago when I was married, go out for Thanksgiving dinner to an American restaurant, Joe Allen’s in Covent Garden. I know that they’re all about quick turnovers for the pre-theatre crowd, but I expected a more leisurely pace on this important holiday, when they were offering a special, expensive Thanksgiving meal to us ex-pat Americans. It was horrible; gruff impatient, even aggressive wait staff made us all feel as soon as we sat down like we were irritating creatures taking up valuable chair space that they needed for the next sitting. They had clearly booked a bazillion more people than they could handle and needed to turn around the tables in about 15 minutes despite serving several courses of a meal that should be slow. They would serve one person’s main meal while the other was still on a starter, snatch plates before people were finished (indeed whilst they held fork to mouth), get impatient if one person whom they served the next course chose to wait for the other diners to be given food as well….We felt bullied and exhausted and paid a fortune for the pleasure. It was the most unpleasant Thanksgiving meal I’d ever had so we never returned.

Anyway, returning to the holiday’s true meaning, I understood from early school plays we always put on at this time of year that the First Thanksgiving was in the early 1600s when the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, were starving because they had no food and the Indians (what you call ‘Red Indians’, what I should call ‘Native Americans’) shared their harvest and taught them how to grow maize, and they all sat down to a wonderful meal together to give thanks for all they had….before we turned on the Indians and killed them in droves, of course. That isn’t quite the official definition but certainly some Pilgrims and natives shared food at a harvest meal. So technically, it was English people and Americans joined together, and you might as well proclaim Thanksgiving an official UK holiday and start taking four-day weekends in November, spending time with your family. Don’t worry if you all end up fighting; that’s another Thanksgiving tradition.

I’ve had a wonderful peaceful time this year and feel, just to finish off the holiday in the right spirit, that I will watch the DVD from a Peanuts holiday box set that an American friend sent me: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Nothing like seeing Peppermint Patty and Linus bully their hosts Charlie Brown and Snoopy with demands for food to put me in the holiday spirit. And as we speak, I am listening to the fine Boo Hewerdine album Thanksgiving, which really has little to do with it other than contain a song of the same name, which focuses more on missing someone who is celebrating the holiday in America, ending with the lonely verse:-

“And through each November as
I feel the summer die,
I pull my coat around me hard
And will myself to fly.
But there is no Thanksgiving;
I know the winter's here.
I'll lock the door and build a fire
And burn another year.”

I highly recommend that album, by the way; Boo is brilliant, it contains such masterful songs as Murder in the Dark, Please Don’t Ask Me to Dance, Footsteps Fall, Bell, Book and Candle and the breathtakingly beautiful The Birds Are Leaving, and includes backing vocals by Martha Wainwright long before she was known as much more than the daughter of Loudon (and Kate McGarrigle)—even before she was known as the sister of Rufus.

And as we’ve returned to the Wainwright family, I shall reprint here the lyrics of the aforementioned song by Daddy Wainwright, Suddenly It’s Christmas, a live version of which is available for download or can be found on his Career Moves album. Naturally, you should see him live (or watch him on YouTube) for the full spellbinding, hilarious Loudon experience, with enthusiasm bursting from him through his waggling outstretched tongue, twisting leg and stomping foot.

Suddenly it's Christmas,
Right after Hallowe'en.
Forget about Thanksgiving;
It's just a buffet in between.
There's lights and tinsel in the windows;
They're stocking up the shelves;
Santa's slaving at the North Pole
In his sweatshop full of elves.

There's got to be a build-up
To the day that Christ was born:
The halls are decked with pumpkins
And the ears of Indian corn.
Dragging through the falling leaves
In a one-horse open sleigh,
Suddenly it's Christmas,
Seven weeks before the day.

Suddenly it's Christmas,
The longest holiday.
When they say "Season's Greetings"
They mean just what they say:
It's a season, it's a marathon,
Retail eternity.
It's not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree.

Outside it's positively balmy,
In the air nary a nip;
Suddenly it's Christmas,
Unbuttoned and unzipped.
Yes, they're working overtime,
Santa's little runts;
Christmas comes but once a year
And goes on for two months.

Christmas carols in December
And November, too;
It's no wonder we're depressed
When the whole thing is through.
Finally it's January;
Let's sing "Auld Lang Syne";
But here comes another heartache,
Shaped like a Valentine.

Suddenly it's Christmas,
The longest holiday.
The season is upon us;
A pox, it won't go away.
It's a season, it's a marathon,
Retail eternity.
It's not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree.

No, it's not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree;
It's still not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree.

--by Loudon Wainwright III

……Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


Valentine Suicide said...

Being a Brit and watching American movies and TV, Thanksgiving seems like a holiday that always looks like it's about to go horribly wrong, and then everything all turns out right in the end (See Friends;Planes Trains and Automobiles etc).

Thanks for reminding me about Boo. I loved what must have been his first solo album, post-Bible, and had forgotten all about him. I'll go and seek him out again....

Brain Tracer said...

Ah yes, Ignorance, my first exposure to Boo's recorded work as I’d missed the Bible boat (Bible ark?). I bought it after being dragged to see him, Eddi Reader and Clive Gregson perform and falling in love with A Slow Divorce. I had to replace the album years later with the re-release with extra tracks including one of my (curiously B-side) favourites, The Ghost of Summer Walking. Boo's surprisingly underappreciated even after all these years of great songwriting.

Good points about Thanksgiving especially in the land of comedy. I guess it stresses the huge importance of the holiday, how everyone strives to make it a perfect holiday, which makes everything more tense. See also proving to your mother-in-law that you're capable of hosting it when usually everyone spends Thanksgiving at her place (see Everybody Loves Raymond). And it's best in film/tellyland to have a warm fluffy ending rather than heating up fish fingers for the guests.