Thanksgiving: Home to roast

Pure, unspoilt, uncommercial - Thanksgiving is the holiday Americans cherish above all.
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Thanksgiving is far and away the nicest American holiday, without jingoism, excessive religiosity or crass hustling for a buck. It is a day for family and friends, and taking in strangers - a day that reaches back to the very origins of the Republic.

Historians debate whether the first Thanksgiving took place in Virginia in 1619, or in Massachusetts two years later, as the Pilgrim settlers and the native Indians briefly made common cause over wild turkey, whose domesticated descendants are the centrepiece of the Thanksgiving feast.

It is Harvest Festival, national history and national myth rolled into one. For Americans, Thanksgiving not Christmas provides the milestones of the passing years. George Washington first proclaimed the holiday, to celebrate freedom from the British. Abraham Lincoln made it a fixture on the final Thursday in November. In 1939, Franklin D Roosevelt changed that to present date of the fourth Thursday of this month.

In this age of instant travel, Thanksgiving is the busiest time of the year for America's roads, railways and airports. People drive and fly ridiculous distances to be with their nearest and dearest. If, like the 145,000 US troops in Iraq you simply can't get home, the taking of the meal itself becomes a bond.

There is no commercialisation, that comes today with the traditional kick-off of the Christmas sales season, an event anxiously scrutinised by economic soothsayers. Most noticeably, there are no presents.

At Thanksgiving the real present is presence; the presence of family and friends, eating themselves stupid, watching the Macy's Parade and a couple of NFL football games on TV, and just hanging out together.

Every year editorialists worry that Thanksgiving will be soon be breathing its last, squeezed to death between the lurid nonsense of Hallowe'en and the juggernaut of Christmas. But each year it comes back stronger than ever, a testament to America's sense of itself - and to the myths that nourish it, even in troubled times like these.