Celebrating Thanks-giving in England is like that segment in I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue when they sing one song to the tune of another. Despite the comforting aromas of turkey, cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, despite the repetition of stories (‘the pilgrims did not know that the blankets they gave to the Indians were infected with smallpox’), gathering family and friends together in Suffolk on the last Thursday in November is like singing Three Blind Mice to the tune of Ol’ Man River.
For a start, it’s not a holiday here, so the most basic element of festivity is missing. Weary couples haven’t driven for hours with children squabbling in the back seat or flown on crowded airplanes that groan with metal fatigue to get home. Also absent are the familiar contributions. No one is bringing their version of Aunt Lila’s sour-cream fruit salad or Aunt Hazel’s five-layer coconut cake. And that ancient and modern division of labour-men sitting in front of the television watching the pre-game commentary while the women are in the kitchen cooking-is missing because there are no American football games on television on Thursdays in England.
So why do I keep doing it? Because, of all the holidays, Thanksgiving seems to me the purest and best. It’s about sitting around a table with people you love and feeling grateful for the simple goodness of life. In true Pilgrim style, it’s a holiday free of the frenzy of consumerism, a short breath of denial we recover from the next day at the mall, the biggest day for sales of the year. The contradiction is probably apt. What Americans celebrate at Thanksgiving is the first harvest in Massachusetts by those sober and austere Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Airbrushed from history is the journey made by the first English settlers 13 years earlier, the ones who arrived at a swamp in Virginia.
One reason Americans don’t dwell on the earlier expedition is that it was the creation story from hell. Before those three small ships even reached land, it was the story of in-fighting, incompetence and near-anarchy. Once on land, they were plagued by mutiny, indolence, famine and heartbreaking despair, starting with the site they chose on the marshy banks of a brackish river they named the James River in honour of their king. The polluted water led to salt poisoning, dysentery and typhoid. Within four months, half the men were dead.
In fact, the only thing that saved the settlement at Virginia from complete disaster was a short, stocky self-made son of a Lincolnshire farmer called Capt John Smith. Through a blend of threat and diplomacy, Smith managed to avoid all-out war with the Indians. He imposed law and direction on the colony, beginning with his decree of the first egalitarian Rule of Law: he that will not work shall not eat. The Virginia story is rather more dramatic don’t forget the Indian princess Pocahontas, who risked her life to warn the settlement of an ambush than the Plymouth Rock story about sharing the corn and the turkeys.
Still, turkeys are the abiding symbol of Thanksgiving, a native American that has crossed the ocean and settled successfully in the Old World. This is my first year raising my own, nine beautiful Norfolk Black turkeys who sleep in the apple trees, sun themselves in the kitchen garden, stick together like a congregation of faithful brethren and listen with cocked heads to all five verses of Amazing Grace.
Although I have now lived in England longer than I lived in America, these turkeys remind me of who I am and where I come from. Like me, they are transplants who have put down roots. In their honour, this Thanksgiving, I’m serving pheasant, pan-smoked over vine prunings. Meanwhile, the sign in my shop reads: ‘Norfolk Black Turkeys Available. Ornamental, Not Edible. For emotional reasons.’ And a happier Thanksgiving for all.