It was pouring with rain when we arrived in Washington a few nights ago. As the so-far-silent taxi driver helped us pull our suitcases out of the boot (trunk!), we told him that the next day would be our very first Thanksgiving. He lit up: ‘Is that right? Your first Thanksgiving? Well, welcome to you, and you have a great day tomorrow, won’t you? Now you take care and all the best to you. Happy holiday.’ He then waited in his car to be sure we made it safely inside our new apartment.
We had travelled by train from Baltimore, 2 of 42 million people in America travelling long distances on the days around Thanksgiving. I was intrigued by it all: the rituals, the history, and above all the intensity of the celebration, so I read and listened and anticipated my own Thanksgiving dinner. Apparently it has become the most important celebration of the year, even more than Christmas. Orange pumpkins of all sizes still adorn the front steps of houses, Halloween decorations becoming by default a part of Thanksgiving, though I wonder if some people would have chopped theirs up to make the obligatory sweet pumpkin pie. Or perhaps they’re the wrong kind.
It’s traditionally a gathering in the home, to give thanks, a time to appreciate the goodness of domesticity and family. The media comments about supermarket queues, of sleeping off a huge dinner, of watching the football, of dealing with difficult family members, of the need for movies to pass the time, are all reminiscent of an Australian Christmas, but without the presents.
The day of Thanksgiving, always a Thursday, is followed by Black Friday (an unsettling name for Aussies) the equivalent of our Boxing Day sales, and by all reports, can be intense and sometimes violent. Many people say that this is the beginning of the Christmas shopping spree; others say that having spent a day eating too much and giving thanks for all they have, Americans then set out the next day to shop and fight for all that they think they still don’t have. Again, reminiscent of our Christmas.
But it’s the echoes of our Australia Day that kept ringing in my head, and the ways that history becomes mythologised into what we think we need. One article I read described Thanksgiving ironically as the day when Americans remember the first Thanksgiving — celebrated at the cost of the indigenous people — by inviting the locals for dinner, giving them a huge feast, then killing them and taking their land. The indigenous, it said, provided just the required modicum of resistance for a pioneer nation. Not a new story for Australia either.
The ceremony was reinvested with vigour during the nineteenth century by the editor of a newspaper who hoped it might derail the growing threat of civil war; her efforts were in vain, but Abraham Lincoln encouraged Americans to give thanks for their nation, its growth, its prosperity and its power. While Australia Day seems a tad more laid-back, our recent, intense celebrations of nationalism bring a warm glow to John Howard’s heart, I’m sure. So it’s always good to read of those who cut across the sweetness of ideological syrup. In the 1780s in New York and Pennsylvania, groups of men and boys known as the Fantastics, who had no abundance to celebrate, dressed up in women’s clothes or in fantastical costumes and went on forays into the streets, parading, heckling and demanding food from the wealthy. It became carnivale, breaking rules and flouting authority. Some say that the emphasis on the domestic gathering was a reaction to such transgression, using home and family to reassert the status quo.
Now let me tell you about my Thanksgiving. We had been invited to dinner by an Australian friend who lives in Washington with her American husband. The meal was traditional and delicious, but simple: turkey, stuffing, roast sweet potato (though I hear that many have mashed potato), cranberry sauce and salads, with sweet potato pie, pecan pie and ice cream for sweets. We heard tales of dishes such as sweet potato topped with marshmallow (to accompany the turkey), and something called ‘s’more’, something of a national institution: layers of chocolate and marshmallows sandwiched between graham crackers (it’s even on Wikipedia). I told the story of what I figure is the nearest Australian sugarload horror: hot chocolate or coffee sucked through a Tim Tam.
I knew nothing about anyone at the dinner table except for our hosts, and that one couple were visiting from South Africa and due to leave the next morning. That not-knowing was such an interesting situation for me: nowhere to ‘place’ people, and nowhere for them to ‘place’ me, and so while we talked about cultural differences, we also talked as people, beyond status and position. One woman showed us some of her bright, geometric artwork; another described her knitting projects: hats for prem babies in Rwanda and guerilla street art decorations for local poles and statues; another spoke in her Southern accent about her past of ‘addiction to almost everything’ and the need for America to start caring. The man sitting across from me was sight impaired, and told me that at one gathering they played card games in pairs, and to keep it fair for him, one person in each pair had to be blindfolded. There were references to the Lutheran church some attended, and the local women’s shelter. We shared stories of banks, government, inequality; the South African man told us about his James Bond moment when he escaped from hijackers with AK47s by doing a handbrake u-ey in his BMW. We laughed a lot as well. It was only afterwards that I realised how rare and lovely it was to meet people, especially people from other countries and cultures, simply as they are without credentials or any other identity than that we happened to be together at a dinner table.
Food has become more of an issue than usual, for good or ill, as we’ve been travelling. Great food in Greece and Turkey, which I’ve already described in earlier posts. Not so wonderful in England where the pubs only know vegetables as peas and soggy carrots or, if they try a vegetarian meal, it’s a version of a meat dish, like bean wellington or bean burger. But the pub has other virtues: its aged warmth, its cosiness, its friendly people and the history bound into its wooden beams and carvings; you can’t have everything, I suppose.
It’s not a new idea that the sharing of food is central to celebration everywhere. Thanksgiving is such an American ritual that I began by looking on, curious, a little distant. But, as true hospitality does, it drew me in and made me welcome.