Thursday brings Thanksgiving, the start of serious shopping - and the American way to take the heat off Christmas
Thanksgiving is a true original, a holiday invented by the Americans and dedicated to celebrating the country's founding purpose: plenitude. Yes, some immigrants travelled to those shores in search of religious or political freedom; but as every observer of American society for the past two centuries has noted, material success is the country's true god - damned by elites as "consumerism", enjoyed by everyone else as "prosperity". The citizens of the United States know they have much to be grateful for. And once a year they gather around their tables to acknowledge that gratitude - which they accomplish by overeating.

The First Thanksgiving - in 1621 - set the pattern. In one sense it was a traditional harvest festival, only the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts were celebrating the success of their first harvest. They were Puritans from East Anglia and Lincolnshire, who had sailed from Plymouth in Devon in the Mayflower the year before. When I was a school child in Pennsylvania, it was explained to me that the Pilgrims had survived their first, harsh, New England winter through the assistance of the local Indians and, in gratitude, they invited them to participate in their first feast. Now I am pleased to learn, from a posting on the Internet, that Edward Winslow, a leader of the Plymouth colony, mentioned the Indians in his account of the 1621 jamboree:

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week ... Many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others."

What has elevated the festivities from a religious harvest festival for the God-fearing to a national event is the growth of the US from an agrarian to an industrial - and now post-industrial - society. In the process the holiday has taken on the customary forms of a secular country - where Christmas is about shopping, and Easter is about a parade. In fact, for many Americans, the most significant fact about Thanksgiving is that the date it is celebrated (the fourth Thursday in November) marks the beginning of Christmas shopping and this, in turn, is signalled by a Thanksgiving Day parade that is concluded with the delivery of Santa Claus to the largest department store in town.

Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day parade in New York is the most famous of these events, but it has its smaller counterparts throughout the country. Philadelphia claims to have the oldest Thanksgiving parade and even little nearby Pottstown, my home town, musters its school marching bands and drill teams and white-booted cheerleaders to glitter in the late autumn sunshine.

But the meal remains the main event: ritualised in its menu (turkey with cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie are traditional, although the side dishes vary with ethnicity) and demanding in its attendance - the whole family, no matter how spread out across the country, is summoned to a common table. (Chinese restaurants in New York shut up shop this one day in the year, and their staff take the day off in the casinos of New Jersey.) There is a hidden blessing here that only an American like myself, who has lived through the English Christmas, with its suffocating triple role of family get-together, children's gift fest and religious holiday, might appreciate. For Americans, Thanksgiving takes the heat off Christmas. The extended family gathers (and has its annual tiffs and longueurs); no gifts are exchanged; and Christmas is left as a quiet time for parents and children to muddle through on their own.

The nicest fact about Thanksgiving is its limitations. The holiday resists commercialisation and other add-ons: no special cards, no new, elaborate ways of roasting a turkey, no making the holiday more special by taking an expensive trip. Andy Warhol once pointed out the democratic credentials of Coca-Cola. There's no way of getting a better one, he observed: a fancier version just isn't a Coke. The same is true of Thanksgiving. Get the family together and eat a big bird. That's it; that's all you can do. Otherwise it ain't Thanksgiving. Welcome to America's democratic holiday.

Additional research by Alissa Quart in New York

New York: the fast facts

Getting there: London-New York is the busiest international air route in the world. Between 8am and 7pm every day, at least 20 wide-bodied aircraft (plus a couple of Concordes) take off from London, destination Kennedy airport in New York City, or its New Jersey rival Newark. These flights are supplemented by regional departures from Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, and connections are available from a range of provincial airports connecting through Dublin, Amsterdam and Reykjavik. Before mid- December, you can expect to pay pounds 200-300 for a return flight over a weekend, inclusive of taxes of around pounds 25. To get the best prices, book through a discount agency rather than direct with the airline. The lowest fares are on airlines with less frequent services, such as Kuwait Airways, Air India and El Al.

Airport links: the cheapest and surest way from Kennedy into Manhattan is to take the free Port Authority bus to Howard Beach subway station. From here, a $1.50 (90p) ride will take you to any station on the New York subway system. Total journey time from Kennedy airport to mid-town Manhattan is about 90 minutes.

From Newark airport in New Jersey, the most exotic alternative to the New Jersey Transit bus to Manhattan, price $7 (pounds 4.50), is to take a taxi to Hoboken for around $25 (pounds 16) and cross on the ferry across the Hudson River.

Getting around: the subway system is fast, cheap and complicated. Before attempting to use the system, pick up a map and some flat-fare tokens ($1.50/90p) from a kiosk in a subway station. These tokens are also valid for Manhattan bus services, which mostly run north-south along the main avenues.

Accommodation: (All the New York telephone numbers quoted below should be prefixed 001 212 when dialling from the UK.) New York is easily the most expensive place to stay in the US. A room in a good, central hotel such as the Mayflower on Central Park West (265 0060) will cost at least $160 (pounds 95) a night for a double room, and bookings before Christmas are heavy. An alternative is a place in a hostel. These are often restricted to foreign visitors only, apparently in a bid to deter local low life. Single and double rooms are available at the centrally located Vanderbilt YMCA (224 East 47th Street, 756 9600) for pounds 35/pounds 45 respectively, while along at the Big Apple Hostel (119 W 45th Street, 302 2603) a double room costs $58 (pounds 35) - but you have to take a chance on the day; it does not accept advance bookings.

Packages: some specialists such as Major Travel (0171-485 7017) sell tours that include transatlantic flights and hotel accommodation, for around pounds 449. The big airlines also sell packages through their tour operating subsidiaries - American Airlines Holidays (0181-577 9966), British Airways Holidays (01293 723100), United Vacations (0181-313 0999) and Virgin Holidays (01293 617181).

Red tape: British passport holders travelling on normal return air tickets to the United States do not require visas. A visa is useful, however, if you plan to visit America frequently - it cuts down on form-filling and reduces processing time at US Immigration. A visitor's visa, valid for up to 10 years, costs pounds 13.75 from the Visa Section of the US Embassy. Call the premium-rate number 0891 200290 for further details.