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What is Thanksgiving? A Brit’s guide to the holiday

Thanksgiving is one of the most important holidays in the U.S. calendar. However for those who have never lived in America, the celebration can seem perplexing and often down-right bewildering. Here in the U.K. offices at Oxford University Press, we thought we may have understood the basics, but on researching more into the holiday, we have been left with many more questions than answers. For instance, what is a “Turkey Trot” or sweet potato pie, and if television is to be believed – do people actually go around the table saying what they’re thankful for? With these burning questions in mind, we’ve enlisted the help of three colleagues across the pond, to answer some of our most pressing questions.

What are you “giving thanks” for?

Stephen M: You give thanks for your circumstances, mainly. What you have in your life that makes it enjoyable. It is less about material possessions and more about the intangibles: having a loving family, a supportive family, a chance to get a good education.

Do people really go around the table, and say what they are thankful for?

Alyssa: Definitely not!

Stephen M: Yes, is that so strange? It is a very sweet moment, especially because you can directly thank someone for giving you whatever it is that helps you through life.

Steven F: This depends on the family, really. Usually, more religious or spiritual families will do this as a form of prayer, but I’ve also attended Thanksgiving meals where the “thankful” part was assumed (by the gathering and camaraderie), so nothing else was needed to be said.

Image Credit: “Beautiful table with thanksgiving food” by hidgrim. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

If so, is this a beautiful and touching moment? We’re worried we’re too cynical….

Steven F: It depends on the family. The whole idea of the holiday is to be positive and thankful for what you have, so if you can take a little schmaltz, then you’re doing the holiday right.

As we all know, the Brits are both amazed and mildly-terrified by the sheer size of America. Eleanor in the Oxford Office (who considers the annual trek back to Cumbria of 200 miles, really a bit much) asks what’s the furthest you’d travel for Thanksgiving?

Alyssa: Pretty far – as it’s usually one of those staple times you go back to family during the year. For instance, my husband and I split our family time with in-laws between the holidays, seeing my family (in South Carolina where we’re currently based) for Thanksgiving this year and seeing his (in Pennsylvania, over 600 miles away) for Christmas.

Do you exchange presents on Thanksgiving?

Stephen M: No no no.

Alyssa: Nope, and that’s kind of what I like about it – no gifts, no religion attached (although it’s certainly a big part of the sermon if you go to church around the holiday). It’s something every person in US, no matter their religion, can celebrate.

Steven F: I never have, though I’m sure if people aren’t seeing each other for Christmas, Thanksgiving might be a good opportunity to give Christmas gifts ahead of time. Thanksgiving is mostly food, food, and more food.

On that note, sweet potatoes, combined with marshmallows, in a pie? Discuss?

Stephen M: I am not a fan and I am not sure where this started. It is very American, though.

Alyssa: THE BEST. Seriously. Sweet and savory. Although it’s not usually a pie, in the American sense – it’s almost more like a casserole.

Pete in the Oxford marketing office asks, do some people really deep-fry their turkey?

Steven F: I’ve never had a deep-fried turkey. Is this a southern US thing?

Alyssa: YES! Although it’s usually advised against because I think it can start fires?

Stephen M: Yes, because deep-frying makes things more delicious.

Image Credit: “Turkey Trot” by JBLM MWR. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

And what exactly is a “Turkey Trot”?

Steven F: Let me just log into Wikipedia because I have no idea what a Turkey Trot is… Oh, there is a picture of a guy running in a Turkey outfit. Yeah, I have no idea.

Alyssa: The really smart and fit people go for a 5K run (usually) the morning of Thanksgiving, so that you have all the more room (and less guilt) to stuff yourself with food later that day. It’s genius.

We’ve heard it’s all about the three Fs – family, food, and football? Is this true?

Steven F: Yes. Every Thanksgiving, the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions play home games against two other teams. This is special because most football games are played on Sunday. A house that doesn’t have football on at least in the background on Thanksgiving during food prep and waiting for guests to arrive does not do the holiday correctly.

Stephen M: Yes, my family watches Washington and the Dallas Cowboys play every year.

Friendsgiving – have you ever done it?

Alyssa: Yes! My friend hosted one once. Since most holidays (especially the ones where you’re cooking a lot of home-y foods) are so family centric, is was really fun to be able to enjoy the traditional dishes with friends too.

Steven F: No, I’ve only ever celebrated the holiday with family.

Stephen M: Yes, it is absolutely fun! What is better than pretending to be able to cook and hanging out with your friends?

Featured Image Credit: “Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Walter Weir, 1857” from the Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Dane

    I used to work for OUP in the US. Hello! In the south we fry turkeys but we do it outside in special turkey fryers meant specifically for this task- I’ve never heard of it starting fires, but anything is possible. we don’t put sweet potatoes in a pie, it is just a dish- sweet potatoes, butter, marshmallows baked in a dish and I don’t like it at all. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the worst travel day of the year, whether you are driving or flying. Everyone is returning home and the roads and airports are especially jammed up on that day. The tradition is cooking all day and watching football and eating but I usually spend the day at the beach or a theme park. This year I am going to Busch Gardens.

  2. David C Lavery

    Sweet potato pie is delicious and different from a bowl of sweet potatoes, which was often topped with marshmallows when I was a child. Though my grandmother’s pumpkin pie was well-noted, I always prefer my wife’s sweet potato pie. She makes it along the lines of Mr. Alton Brown of television fame. I’m sure his recipe is available on the network site.

  3. Marian Wyble

    One of my favourite Thanksgiving memories is the one I celebrated in Oxford while a student at Manchester College. The staff there did an incredible job a planning a feast, with a British twist, for all the American JYA students there and the students did a wonderful job hosting pre-dinner drinks and after dinner dessert parties. Since Thursday evenings were our formal dinner nights anyhow, everyone was beautifully dressed and ready to celebrate. I remember bread sauce instead of stuffing and mince tarts instead of pumpkin pie and yes, we did sit at table and talk about gratitude.

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