Thanksgiving is Un-American

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

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 hasn't 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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Nuclear Turkey with Russian Dressing

Can the new Turkish-Russian nuclear plant be a model for safe energy, or will it be an environmental and proliferation risk?

Last fall, a pilot group of Turkish students arrived in the forested "Science City" of Obninsk, a once-secret location for Stalin's nuclear program 60 miles outside Moscow. Sponsored by Russia's nuclear industry, the students are the first of some 600 Turks who will be brought to Russia in small groups over the coming years to enroll in a six-and-a-half-year program to learn Russian and earn degrees in nuclear power and engineering, embarking on a program that will help bring Turkey into the nuclear club of nations. 

I spoke with some of these students over tea and strudel at a quiet café in Obninsk. They were relieved to practice their English after months of grueling Russian lessons and spoke of missing their families but also their bright futures in the nuclear energy industry. The Russians claim that more than 9,000 Turkish math and physics students competed for these first scholarship slots, which will guarantee employment at four Russian-built reactors slated for construction next year on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. With solid careers and good salaries ahead, they seemed more than willing to put up with freezing winters and Skype-filled nights.

"It's possible we will be the first group to open the gates of our country's first nuclear power plant -- our country is counting on us," says 21-year-old Gokcehan Tosun, who hails from the port city of Samsun on the Black Sea.

It's been a long wait for nuclear boosters like her. Turkey has been flirting with nuclear power since President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" cooperation agreement with the country in 1955 -- a program of shared equipment and technology that sought to foster peaceful and transparent use of the energy resource, and helped build the first reactors in Pakistan and Iran. At the time, Turkey was just one of the many countries anxious to harness nuclear power. But even though feasibility studies into commercial scale reactors were first carried out in the 1960s, decades of efforts stalled. The reasons were myriad, but included the government's failure to guarantee financing, post-Chernobyl jitters, and a deadly 1999 quake in Turkey that underscored the country's dismal construction practices.

But with new legislation in 2007 easing multiple bureaucratic hurdles and a novel financing deal with Russia's state-controlled nuclear corporation, Rosatom, the "Akkuyu" site along the Mediterranean coast -- first licensed in 1976 -- is expected to soon be the home of Turkey's first reactors.

Nuclear suppliers from Japan, South Korea, China, and Canada have also sought deals in the new Turkish market. But Russia is first in line with an unusual and aggressive marketing plan they hope to spread to other nuclear "newcomers," as Rosatom execs like to call new-to-nuclear countries like Turkey: the "build-own-operate" or "BOO" model. In short, the reactors built under the program reside in a foreign country -- in this case, Turkey -- but will still be owned by Russia. The BOO model has been used in other industries worldwide, such as water treatment and telecommunications, but the Russian-Turkish Akkuyu deal is the first time the model has been used for a nuclear power plant.

"We are a country without a nuclear power plant," Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told visitors at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East, North Africa, and Eurasia in Istanbul in June. "However, we are determined to have nuclear power plants [with] at least 23 nuclear units by the year 2023." That's pretty ambitious, especially with the inevitable lengthy negotiations and construction times involved, and the first four reactors only expected on line by 2019 at the earliest. "It takes between 10 and 15 years from start to finish for one nuclear power plant," says Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Her bet? They'll have "two by 2023." 

Turkey has good reason to seek out new sources of energy. With a growing and energy-hungry population -- electricity demand has grown an average of 8 percent per year over the past decade -- Turkey finds itself importing more than 70 percent of its energy, primarily fossil fuels. As part of a larger plan to privatize and liberalize its energy market, the Turkish government wants to reduce gas imports and increase the share of renewable energy to 30 percent and nuclear to 10 percent of Turkish power by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. If they succeed, it could turn Turkey into "one of the most potentially lucrative and active nuclear markets in the world," according to a comprehensive report on the country's transition to nuclear power by the Istanbul-based Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).

Turkey is also worried about its reliance on fossil fuels from neighbors like Iran and -- ironically -- Russia, which in 2009 famously shut off gas shipments through Ukraine over a pricing dispute, leaving Turkey and much of Europe shivering for several weeks in the dead of winter. 

Yet many Turks are deeply uneasy with the nuclear ambitions of their government. There have been multiple protests, especially in the weeks and months following the Fukushima disaster. Residents around the planned facility are particularly upset. The Akkuyu site is in Turkey's Mersin province, a tourist region along the Mediterranean coast that locals fear could lose its allure and prompt residents to move out. "This is a touristic place and a plant there could make the region lose significant tourism revenue," says Necdet Pamir, chairman of the Energy Commission of the opposition Republican People's Party, which opposes the project over safety concerns and has tried and failed to block it in Turkey's Constitutional Court. The concerns are international as well. Worried about a potential catastrophe near their borders, Greece and Cyprus have called on the EU to scrutinize the project. 

Earthquake risk is also a serious concern.  In 1998 a 6.2 magnitude quake hit Adana, 110 miles away from Akkuyu Bay, killing 150 and causing an estimated $1 billion in damage. "Akkuyu is a dangerous location 20-25 kilometers away from an active fault plane and the license to build was granted before this was known," says Pamir. "Also, Turkey has other, safer indigenous energy resources," he says, that could be developed instead of nuclear, such as "clean-coal," hydroelectricity, solar, or wind. None of those sources would be as risky as nuclear in a seismically active country, says Pamir. (Turkish officials insist that the sites being explored for reactors have a low seismic risk and that the Akkuyu site has been designed to withstand a magnitude 9.0 quake.)

The lack of a nuclear track record also raises questions.  "It's not clear that the Turkish regulator has the capacity to oversee the Russians building a Russian plant and operating this plant in its country," says Kevin Massy, associate director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution. He visited Turkey earlier this year to study its energy plans for a report published this week. With regulators answering to the Energy Ministry, the same entity that is promoting the project, Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the EDAM think tank, is also concerned. "The full independence of the nuclear regulatory authority is a crucial element in ensuring a safe and secure transition to nuclear power," he says. "Many accidents, including at Fukushima, show that this is a core component of safe nuclear power."

With transfers of nuclear technology and know-how there is also the concern of proliferation. In the Akkuyu deal, points out American Nuclear Society blogger Dan Yurman, Turkey will avoid the most controversial parts of the fuel cycle which are linked to proliferation and bomb-building. "Keep in mind that with the Russians, Turkey is not going to develop enrichment or fuel-reprocessing facilities. If they do the same with their other two potential power stations then their hands are clean," he notes.

Washington has been largely silent so far. The State Department declined to comment on Turkey's plan for reactors or the Russian deal for this story and has not made any official or public comment. "You can hardly hear any open criticism from the U.S.," says Pamir. But, he adds, "If you flirt with the Russians it can be seen as a dangerous liaison." (In the late 1990s the Clinton administration sanctioned four Russian entities for allegedly sharing nuclear and missile technology with Iran. Those sanctions were lifted in 2004).

"We've never objected to Turkey pursuing civilian nuclear power options because they've not -- unlike Iran for instance -- been in violation of their NPT agreement," says former Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman. He says Turkey's solid track record has meant there's been little concern over country's goals. But, he adds, "That could all change with a nuclear Iran. In fact, I think it would change. My own judgment is that although for the most part I think Turkey is motivated by a genuine interest in developing civilian nuclear power, the context has shifted. You now have to consider their pursuit of reactor deals not just with Russia but also with South Korea as a potential long-term hedging strategy against a possible proliferated Middle East."

While Turkey is on record in opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his support for Iran's civilian energy program earlier this year, saying that Turkey "has always clearly supported the nuclear positions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and will continue to firmly follow the same policy in the future"  -- prompting a thank you from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose controversial Russian-completed Bushehr power plant reached full capacity on Aug. 31.

Meanwhile, Russia is refining its sales pitch. It wants to sell reactors all over the world -- part of a plan announced by Rosatom chief Sergey Kirienko to double output at home and triple global sales by 2030. It's unclear where Turkey will turn next if and when it inks a deal for a second plant. But Brookings' Massy predicts any further plants won't be Russian. While the electricity from Akkuyu would be coming from a domestic source, "it's not really diversification from Russia if Russia is building, owning, operating and financing, their nuclear power plant," he argues.

Still, for now, Russia's nuclear package is a tough one to beat. During his first presidency, Vladimir Putin signed controversial legislation allowing Russia to import and permanently store another country's spent nuclear fuel. This is a deal vendors from other countries may not be able to provide, presenting a spent fuel problem that Turkey will eventually have to face and which nuclear opponents will likely stress going forward. Disappointingly for activists, the Fukushima disaster hasn't slowed Turkey's desire for reactors or Russia's aim to be the go-to country for the world's nuclear newcomers.

As Putin said less than year after Fukushima, "There's a rebirth, a renaissance of the nuclear sphere taking place right now," and Russia plans to be right there in the thick of it.