As you probably know, Thanksgiving is not celebrated in England. O. Henry loves to tell people – it is a “purely American” holiday. The English do, however, celebrate Harvest Festival. Of course, we’ve given thanks for successful harvests since pagan times – the odd virgin sacrifice to the corn spirits, you know – but the tradition of Harvest Festival as it is today began in 1843 when Reverend Robert Hawker invited parishioners to a special thanksgiving service at his church in Morwenstow in Cornwall. I’ve always imagined that he looked over the Atlantic Ocean from Lands End, saw Americans enjoying their own Thanksgiving festivities and said, “It’s not fair. Why haven't the English got a similar tradition? I shall invent one!” And he did. England is like a spoilt child; if someone else has something, it has to have one too. And if it can’t find one of its own, it’ll take yours!
Nowadays, on a weekend afternoon in late September/early October, there are "Harvest Fayres" held in church halls all over the country at which people sell local fruits and vegetables; home-made bread, cakes and cookies; and jams and jellies made from local fruit. There are corn dolly displays and there's usually someone there to show you how to make a corn dolly. The kids play old-fashioned games and watch politically incorrect puppet shows -- Punch and Judy, anyone? If you're lucky, there will be traditional Morris Dancing. In the spirit of plenty, everyone brings tinned food to give to the poor. I noticed when I was a child that many of the tins were rusty as if folks were clearing out old items from their pantries; or they contained things like beets, and I used to think, “I bet poor people don’t like beets any more than I do!” I like them now but I loathed them then.
|Harvest Weekend in Winchester Cathedral, 2013|
But there’s no family, no gathering of the clans at Harvest Festival. That’s one of the purposes of your Thanksgiving. Christmas Day is our gathering of the clans. That’s when we have turkey, sage-and-onion stuffing, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, Brussels sprouts, garden peas, Christmas pudding, brandy butter, mince pies and way, way, way too much sherry.
Having lived in America for many years, I've learned to appreciate Thanksgiving but I believe I now know its real purpose. FOOTBALL! I doubt that Squanto and the pilgrims had a big screen TV when they gathered together all those years ago, but I’m sure someone threw an oval-shaped squash that someone else caught. I’m sure they looked at each other and said, “This is how we should give thanks. We shall call it football!”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My first connection with Thanksgiving was when I was living in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in 1990. I worked as office manager for an American irrigation company which was partnered in the same building with an English landscaping company. These companies worked together and found fame in two ways: (a) they built the first all-grass golf course in the middle of the desert and (b) they were accused of cheating Sheikh Mohamed, the ruler of Dubai, out of millions of dollars. I was there for the former event and had thankfully left before the latter.
As we approached the third week of November that year, the American employees began to grumble. They were upset because all other American expatriates in Dubai were being given a particular Thursday off work. Apparently it was even more important than usual because we were in the middle of the first Gulf War, and emotions were running high. The “Powers That Be” in our two companies said that it wasn’t fair for the American folks to get a day off and not the English folks so the answer was “no”. I have to say, the English folks were secretly quite happy about this. It could’ve been called “Thanksgiving Envy.”
In 1991, the same thing happened…except that this year, the “Powers That Be” decided that Thanksgiving was such a big deal for the Americans, bigger even than Christmas, they would get a day off. Well, the English were outraged. It’s not fair they said. What about us? Why should they get the day off and not us? But that’s what happened. Thanksgiving was now recognized by all Americans in Dubai. “Thanksgiving Envy…”
The following year, I left Dubai shortly before Thanksgiving and found myself in Austin, the state capital of Texas. I was visiting a friend on my way to Los Angeles to become an actress. I met up with a nice group of people one of whom – let’s call her Katy – invited me to her family home for the Thanksgiving holiday. At last, I was going to celebrate Thanksgiving! I knew it was an honor and I treated it as such. I dressed up in all my finery and put on my best English manners.
The extended family I met that day was delightful. They had the biggest telly I’d ever seen, like a movie screen. Everyone has one now but in1992, Katy’s family must’ve been one of the first. All the comfy chairs were lined up to face it and all the men were seated really close to the screen watching what looked like a kind of rugby match.
Everyone in the family had brought something to the table, potluck style. After lots of hugs and kisses, we gathered around to fill our plates. Now Americans have a long tradition of mocking the English for our eating habits and every one of you seems to have a story to tell about the ghastly food you’ve been served in my country. I know, I know...steak and kidney pie, blood pudding, jellied eels, spotted dick, etc. But I have to say, I didn’t know what to make of everything I saw on the table that day. I recognized the turkey of course. This had been smoked, I believe, which was new to me, but I recognized the shape. I recognized the mashed potatoes. But there all recognition ended.
What’s that green, mushy stuff with the bits in it and the grey sauce? Green bean casserole.
What’s the grey sauce made of? Mushroom soup.
What’s the yellow, squishy stuff with orange stretchy strings on it? Squash au gratin.
What’s that orange mashed up stuff with pink goo on it? Candied yams.
What’s the pink gooey stuff? Marshmallows.
Where are the vegetables? Those are the vegetables...
There was cornbread stuffing with funny lumps which turned out to be oysters. There was cranberry sauce shaped like a can. There was giblet gravy. I served myself turkey and mashed potatoes with small spoons-full of each vegetable. It was certainly the most colorful celebration meal I’d ever eaten, and once I got over myself, I ate everything on my plate and went back for seconds. But I was in culture shock!
Then came the pies. Mm, pies! I’ve never seen so many pies: pumpkin, pecan, coconut cream, chocolate, key lime, apple, blueberry, peach. In fact, if I remember correctly, there were enough pies for everyone at the party to have a pie of his or her very own.
Following the food (especially the pies), I lay slumped on an easy chair prepared to vegetate in front of the giant TV as folks always do on holidays. Then I learned to my horror I was being taken to the UT/Aggie game at the Texas Memorial Stadium. Now, I have to tell you that I didn’t know what a UT was. I didn’t know what an Aggie was. And I thought football was soccer…but we won’t go into that! After many years in Austin, I now know the significance of the Thanksgiving football game between the University of Texas and A&M. I also know now how lucky I was to be attending the game itself when everyone else had to watch it on the big-screen TV.
Back in 1992, the big game was held on Thanksgiving Day. For reasons unbeknownst to me, this was changed to the day after Thanksgiving. Now it's changed back. Anyway, I had the treat of joining a large party at the sporting event of the season.
It was particularly cold that afternoon. A blue norther had blown through; the sky was blue, the sun shone but it didn’t get above freezing all day so we dressed very warmly. We had nosebleed seats which means we were so high up, we could wave at people in passing planes. This was the point at which I discovered I’d forgotten my spectacles. Added to the fact that I’d had several glasses of wine at lunch, and that my buddy had provided all her guests with flasks filled with the liquor of their choice (mine was gin and tonic) I could barely see the football field, let alone the players. I could just about discern the difference between the two team colors though for the life of me, I had no idea which team I was supposed to be supporting. Katy taught me a hand signal I should use every time she elbowed me. And every time I held up my hands with that signal, I was to shout, “Hook ‘em, Horns, Hook ‘em!” This I did, with gusto.
I’m ashamed to say that I have no memory of the game itself, nor do I remember the score though I think UT won. What I do remember is getting lost on the way back from the restrooms. Let me give you some advice, if I may. Never, ever go to the restrooms in a football stadium just before the game ends, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the stadium. I was actually sitting on the loo when the cheering rose to that crescendo which tells you that play is over. Texas Memorial Stadium at that time held over 75,000 people and it was full that day. When I came out of the Ladies’, there were thousands of people swarming past like ants, and of course I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. At one point, I got swept into the current and had to spin myself out like a top.
I cowered against the wall like a lost puppy and waited. I didn’t know what else to do. Cell-phones weren’t common then; I certainly didn’t have one. Eventually, as the crowds thinned, I heard a distant voice calling “Bernadette, Bernadette!” “Over here,” I shouted, “I'm over here.” Eventually a tall, shadowy figure appeared in the tunnel ahead of me, like Red Adair or John Wayne, “Come on, little lady.” I nearly sobbed. If it hadn’t been for that extremely loud-voiced gentleman, one of my new-found friends, I’d probably still be there now.
I’ve never been to another live football game though my American husband is a great supporter and I’ve sat through hundreds of games of TV. However, I have cooked several Thanksgiving dinners, American-style, of my own. I’ve also cooked English-style turkey dinners. My mother-in-law won’t eat my roast potatoes. Mind you, she’s from Louisiana and she complains every time she’s served potatoes in any shape or form since she believes the only real carbohydrate is rice. Vive la difference, I say, because my stepsons love my roast potatoes and they love my sage-and-onion stuffing and they love my Yorkshire pudding. They’ve given my Brussels sprouts a try and once or twice actually swallowed a couple by accident. I have made my own version of green bean casserole, I’ve even made squash au gratin and I’m a huge fan of pies, “Hook ‘em, pies, hook ‘em”! But I have never made, and I have no intention of ever making, candied yams. I believe there is something profoundly wrong with using pink marshmallows in cooking. And I’m sure that Squanto would agree.