Bryson's America: Giving thanks for delaying the onset of Christmas

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The Independent Culture
IF I am looking a little bloated and sluggish today, it is because it was Thanksgiving here on Thursday, and I haven't quite recovered yet.

I have a special fondness for Thanksgiving because, apart from anything else, when I was growing up it was the one time of year we ate in our house. All the other days of the year we just kind of put food into our mouths. My mother was not a great cook, you see.

Now please don't misunderstand me. My mother is a kindly, cheerful, saintly soul, and when she dies she will go straight to heaven, but believe me, no one is going to say, "Oh, thank goodness you're here, Mrs Bryson, can you fix us something to eat?"

To be perfectly fair to her, my mother had several strikes against her in the kitchen department. To begin with, she couldn't cook - always a bit of a handicap where the culinary arts are concerned. Mind you, she didn't especially want to be able to cook, and anyway she couldn't have even if she had wanted to. She had a career, you see, which meant that she was always flying in the door two minutes before it was time to put dinner on the table. On top of this, she was a trifle absent-minded. She tended to confuse similarly coloured ingredients like sugar and salt, pepper and cinnamon, vinegar and maple syrup, cornflour and plaster of Paris, which often lent her dishes an unexpected dimension. Her particular speciality was to cook things while they were still in the packaging. I was almost full-grown before I realised that clingfilm wasn't a sort of chewy glaze. A combination of haste, forgetfulness and a charming incompetence where household appliances were concerned meant that most of her cooking experiences were punctuated with billows of smoke and occasional small explosions. In our house, as a rule of thumb, it was time to eat when the firemen departed.

Strangely, this suited my father. My father had what you might call rudimentary tastes in food. His palate really only responded to three flavours: salt, ketchup and burnt. His idea of an outstanding meal was a plate that contained something brown and unidentifiable, something green and unidentifiable, and something charred. I am quite sure that if you slow-baked, say, a loofah and covered it sufficiently with ketchup, he would have said, "Hey, this is very tasty." Good food, in short, was something that was wasted on him, and my mother worked hard for years to see that he was never disappointed.

But on Thanksgiving, by some kind of miracle, she pulled out all the stops and outdid herself. She would call us to the table and there we would find, awaiting our unaccustomed delectation, a sumptuous spread of food - an enormous and glistening turkey, baskets of cornbread and warm rolls, vegetables that you could actually recognise, a tureen of cranberry sauce, a bowl of exquisitely fluffed mashed potatoes, a salver of plump sausages, and much else. We would eat as if we had not eaten for a year (as, in effect, we had not) and then she would present the piece de resistance - a golden, flaky-crusted pumpkin pie surrounded by a Matterhorn of whipped cream. It was perfect. It was heaven.

And it has left me with the profoundest joy and gratitude for this most wonderful of holidays - for Thanksgiving is the most splendid of occasions, and make no mistake.

Most Americans, I believe, think that Thanksgiving has always been held on the last Thursday of November and that it has been going on for ever, or at least as near for ever as anything gets in America.

In fact, although the Mayflower pilgrims did indeed hold a famous feast in 1621 to thank the local Indians for their help in getting them through their first difficult year and showing them how to make popcorn and so on (for which I am grateful even yet), there is no record of when that feast was held. Given the climate of New England, it was unlikely to have been late November. In any case, for the next 242 years Thanksgiving as an event was hardly noted. The first official celebration wasn't held until 1863 - and then in August, of all months. The next year President Abraham Lincoln moved it arbitrarily to the last Thursday in November - no one seems to recall now why a Thursday, or why so late in the year, and there it has stayed ever since.

Thanksgiving is wonderful, and for all kinds of reasons. To begin with, it has the commendable effect of staving off Christmas. Whereas in Britain the Christmas shopping season seems nowadays to kick off round about the August bank holiday, Christmas mania doesn't traditionally begin in America until the last weekend in November.

Moreover, Thanksgiving remains a pure holiday, largely unsullied by commercialisation. It involves no greetings cards, no trees to trim, no perplexed hunt through drawers and cupboards for decorations. At Thanksgiving all you do is sit at a table and try to get your stomach into the shape of a beach ball, and then go and watch a game of American football on the TV. This is my kind of holiday. But perhaps the nicest, and certainly the noblest, aspect of Thanksgiving is that it gives you a formal, official occasion to give thanks for all those things for which you should be grateful. Speaking personally, I have a great deal to be thankful for. I have a wife and children I am crazy about. I have my health and retain full command of most of my faculties (albeit not always simultaneously). I live in a time of peace and prosperity, Ronald Reagan will never be president again. These are things for which I am grateful, and I am pleased to let the record show it.

The only downside is that the passage of Thanksgiving marks the inescapable onset of Christmas. Any day now - any moment - my dear wife will appear beside me and announce that the time has come to shift my distended stomach and get out the festive decorations. This is a dread moment for me and with good reason, since it involves physical exertion, wobbly ladders, live electricity, wriggling ascents through a loft hatch, and the collaborative direction of said dear missus - all things with the power to do me a serious and permanent injury. I have a terrible feeling that today may be that day. Still, it hasn't happened yet and for that, of course, I give my sincerest thanks of all.

Extracted from `Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson, published by Doubleday, price pounds 16.99. Available at all major bookshops or by mail order on 01624 675137