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Thanksgiving, through the Looking Glass
Taking an almost-familiar holiday to heart

Jennie A. Brownscombe's The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth

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Even to an immigrant who started life in the Anglosphere, this country can at times feel foreign. Not in the sense that, say, Mongolia or Russia feel foreign, of course. In those countries, I have no idea what the road signs say, and, unlike in Western Europe, I can’t even use my reasonable French and limited Latin to hazard a guess. But it can feel unfamiliar nonetheless, and in that most discombobulating of ways: slightly.

I speak English, as do almost all Americans. But we don’t speak it in quite the same way. Most British people do not talk to one another directly but have instead developed a sub-language with which they hint at what they wish to convey, and hope in earnest that the other person cottons on. Is your cousin good at playing the violin? “Well,” an Englishman might say, “she’s not the greatest violinist in the world.” This, if you’re unsure, means that she is utterly terrible. Do you like this piece of modern art? “It’s very interesting.” This means, “Don’t just burn it, but try and pretend you never even had the thought in the first place.” We are, as I have learned from the complaints of my long-suffering fiancée, frequently inscrutable.

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In the Midwestern United States, by contrast, people talk to perfect strangers as if they have been buddies since the Second World War. I will never forget sitting at a bar in Michigan in 2008 and striking up a conversation with another fellow who, after a couple of hours, had asked me in no particular order if I wanted to stay in his house, borrow his car, or go fishing with him. The English are generous and kind, certainly. But this directness is a particularly American trait. The coasts to one side, if someone says something to you here, they mean it, which is refreshing but also deeply alien.

National holidays, of which America has an almost completely different set than does Britain, can have a similar effect on those who have moved between the two countries. For obvious reasons, there is no Independence Day in my country of birth, nor is there a quadrennial Inauguration Day. Columbus Day, Labor Day, and Memorial Day do not figure, either. Celebrating these strange anniversaries here, I sometimes feel like I am acting in a play and don’t know the lines. Really, what is the protocol for President’s Day?

Because I have always loved the American ideal, instinctively backing the rebels in the War of Independence and disliking the reflexive European tendency to joke derisively about Americans, July 4 came reasonably naturally to me from the start. It is, after all, a holiday that the British couldn’t do even if they wanted to: In a country whose weather prevents the planning of a barbeque more than a few hours out, Independence Day would be an annual bust.

Christmas and New Year’s Eve are both eerily recognizable. But not Thanksgiving. This, the Scottish television host Craig Ferguson jokes, is no accident. “There is no Thanksgiving back in the old country where I come from,” Ferguson explained. “You know why? Because being thankful is a sin.” Anybody who has ever watched a British person who is over the age of 13 awkwardly open a gift knows where he is coming from. Something in the British character shies away from anything that seems earnest. Waxing lyrical about the things for which you are thankful is not quite cricket.

For a while, then, Thanksgiving felt to me like an odd imposition — much as Bastille Day does to those who happen to be visiting France on July 14. To add to the peculiarity, Americans do on Thanksgiving roughly what Brits do at Christmas: They get the whole family together and eat turkey with stuffing, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and cranberry sauce. And then, at Christmas, Americans cook what they want. (Often the same kind of meal as at Thanksgiving, but there’s no rule; beef at Christmas just feels wrong. Why not octopus?)

To experience Diwali in India is to feel as if one has walked through the looking glass into a completely different world. To experience Thanksgiving in America, conversely, is to feel only slightly befuddled, as if someone has taken descriptions of Harvest Festival and Christmas, combined them haphazardly, and then pushed them backwards and forwards a few times through Google Translate. You recognize the elements — the odd word here and there — but the whole is peculiar. Is it Christmas without the carols, or a family lunch on steroids? Or is it Harvest Festival only with a focus on plenty at home rather than hunger abroad? I didn’t know. “What are you doing for Thanksgiving,” I would be asked. “Um!”

And yet, by that peculiarly American genius for assimilating foreigners into their culture, the disparate pieces are quickly put together into a form that makes sense. I’m not sure why, but I’m starting to get it. When people asked whether I found the different American spellings to be tricky, I used to joke that I had learned “to speak two languages, English and American,” and that I could switch between them at will. But as time has gone on, they have started to meld together. Now, I don’t even notice an American accent as being different to my own. Sometimes I say “lift”; sometimes “elevator.” Who cares? Likewise has Thanksgiving established its place in my mental patchwork quilt.

This year, when my fiancée mentioned our plans, they felt run-of-the-mill. Oh, yes, Thanksgiving! I even started to ask other people what they were doing — trying to remember what they had done before and to sound as nonchalant as possible. “Will you be with your parents in Maine?” “Having the grandparents over again?” “How is Martha?” When my own invitation came in, I replied that I would “love to attend,” and had “so much for which to be thankful.” And here’s the thing: Despite still being very British in speech and manner, I meant it.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.



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