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Thanksgiving is Un-American

Seriously. What you need to know about the international origins of the most American of holidays.

ustin Sullivan/Getty Images
ustin Sullivan/Getty Images

Few U.S. folk customs are as popular and as quintessentially American as Thanksgiving. A rich thread of tradition connects the First Feast, famously celebrated almost four centuries ago by Pilgrims and native Americans at Plymouth Plantation, with the modern president’s annual pardon of a turkey, officially the Luckiest Bird in America.

But not only is the annual turkey-fest wholly American in origin, it is also — like American football and the Fahrenheit scale — as ubiquitous at home as it is rare overseas. Compare that to, say, Halloween or Santa Claus, two holiday phenomena that have struck deep roots in global culture in a still-recognizable American format.

Perhaps why Thanksgiving hasnt become globalized is because it is the festive celebration of American exceptionalism — a marker of the country’s unique position in the world. How much, really, can other nations have to be thankful for, compared to the country that put men on the moon, won two World Wars and one Cold War, and with might and right on its side appropriated +1 as its telephone country code?

But hold on a moment: Thanksgiving isn’t all that typically American. That rich thread that connects past Thanksgivings to the present one branches out to alternate histories, different traditions, and other cultures. And the clues are in the name of that bird, cooked specimens of which form the centerpiece of millions of dinner tables. But before we talk turkey, let’s look at Thanksgiving’s geographical range.

Turns out Thanksgiving isn’t just American, it’s also Canadian and Liberian, Grenadan and Norfolkian.

In Canada, Thanksgiving (or Action de grâce, if you’re French-Canadian) is an annual holiday celebrated on the second Monday in October. There is some discussion on whether Canadian Thanksgiving has its origins in a sermon of thankfulness pronounced on Baffin Island during Martin Frobisher’s disastrous 1578 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Opposed to this neat underpinning of Canadian exceptionalism is the theory that the holiday was transported north with American Loyalists fleeing the patently disloyal outcome of the American Revolution from the 1780s onwards.

Either way, for a time, Canadian Thanksgiving was a very movable feast, only proclaimed if and when there was a particular occasion to give thanks for. In 1816, Thanksgiving was held in summer to commemorate the end of the Napoleonic wars. In 1872, it fell on April 5, celebrating the Prince of Wales’ recovery from a grave illness.

Liberia, founded in 1820 by Americans as an African destination for freed black slaves, also imported a number of American customs, Thanksgiving among them. Liberian Thanksgiving, however, is celebrated on the first Thursday of November, and involves not turkey but roasted chicken, accompanied by mashed cassavas and green bean casserole.

On the tiny Pacific island of Norfolk, an Australian dependency halfway between New Zealand and New Caledonia (France), and populated in part by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, Thanksgiving has been celebrated ever since American whalers brought the custom ashore in the 19th century. Norfolk’s Thanksgiving falls on the last Wednesday in November.

Grenada’s association with Thanksgiving is of much more recent origin. Who’d have thought that a U.S. invasion, instigated by Ronald Reagan, would ever be celebrated as a national holiday? And yet, the 1983 removal of a Cuban-supported socialist regime by Operation Urgent Fury is celebrated every year with a Thanksgiving Day on 25 October, the start date of the invasion.

And what holds for Thanksgiving’s range also goes for its roots: closer inspection reveals that it’s less American than at first glance.

Ground Zero for the current tradition is the three-day feast held in 1621 at Plymouth, Massachusetts, involving 90 natives and 53 Pilgrims. But the tradition didn’t spring up ex nihilo: Thanksgivings were being celebrated in Virginia’s Jamestown settlement as early as 1610. And both the Plymouth and Jamestown celebrations echoed traditions brought over from Protestant England.

The English Reformation, concerned with returning Christianity to its essential core, didn’t just shut down the monasteries; it also abolished the Catholic calendar, which cluttered up the year with almost 100 special Saint’s days and other religious holidays — this on top of the 52 church-going Sundays. The Puritans refused even to recognize Easter and Christmas, limiting themselves to an austere and variable regimen of Days of Fasting, whenever disasters befell the faithful (such as an outbreak of the plague in 1604), or Days of Thanksgiving, when Providence showered them with blessings (the timely discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, for example).

One theory even conjures up Dutch roots for the all-American feast. In the decade prior to their migration to New England, many Pilgrims had found refuge in Leyden, between Rotterdam and Amsterdam. In 1575, the city was relieved of a Spanish siege. This was one of the turning points in Netherlands’ 80 Years’ War of independence from Spain. An annual celebration of Thanksgiving, each year on October 3, may have stuck in the minds of the Pilgrims. The city of Leyden still celebrates the victory over the Spanish on that day, and free herring is festively distributed among the populace. But to commemorate the city’s link with the Pilgrims, the Pieterskerk holds a separate Thanksgiving service — moved to the fourth Thursday in November, to coincide with the American holiday.

But Thanksgiving doesn’t merely have Protestant roots; it’s obviously also a celebration of the Pilgrim’s first successful harvest in the New World. In that sense, it figures in a much older, much broader, and much more global tradition of harvest festivals.

In Russia, Poland, and other Slavic countries, Dozhinki is a festival of song and dance at the end of the harvest. The French-Swiss Bénichon, a seven-course meal, celebrates both the harvest and the return of cattle from pasture high in the Alps. In Iceland, Freyfaxi, on August 1, celebrates the beginning of the harvest with sports matches, often dedicated to the god Freyr. Also on August 1, Celtic (and pagan) Europe celebrates Lughnasadh, the first grain harvest. At Samhain, on October 31, they celebrate the last one.

The Dutch celebrate a Dankdag on the first Wednesday of November, and the Germans and Austrians an Erntedank on the first Sunday of October. This coincides with the end of the Oktoberfest, with its carnivalesque cornucopia of food and drink itself a celebration of plentiful harvests.

Harvest festivals abound on all continents, but different climes obviously impose different times for celebration. The Bhogali Bihu, celebrating the end of harvest in the Indian state of Assam, is held in January. The Flores de Mayo on the Philippines are celebrated in May. And one of the oldest recorded harvest festivals is the Jewish weeklong festival of sukkot, which follows the Jewish lunar calendar, swaggering back and forth between late September and late October.

But let’s get back to that turkey: Why is the staple ingredient of most American of holidays named after a Eurasian country? After all, the species Meleagris is native to the Americas. But like so many of the endemic species of the Old and the New World, America’s Big Bird got mixed up in the so-called Columbian Exchange that saw cats, carrots, and cholera go west, and syphilis, tomatoes, and rubber go east.

To Europeans, used to puny chickens, the American bird looked so exotic that it was endowed with all kinds of faraway origins. Hence the English reference to Turkey. Other languages place the bird’s origins even further east. French dinde refers to India ("d’Inde"), and the Danish and Norwegian Kalkun name-checks Calcutta.

The Greek, however, call it gallopoula, literally "French chicken." In Bulgarian dialect, a misirka refers to a supposedly Egyptian origin of the bird (Misr is Arabic for Egypt), while in Arabic itself, the bird is thrown back across the Mediterranean as dik rumi, or "Greek chicken." In Croatia, they provide the bird with Peruvian ancestry (puran), while Malays may refer to the feathered beast as an ayam Belanda (Dutch chicken).

So, what do they call a turkey in Turkey? A hindi, as in "from India."

So, when you’re celebrating that most American of holidays this year, remember that it’s far more international than you might have thought. And yes, that too is something to be thankful for.

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