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.