Rupert Cornwell: Only the turkeys don't look forward to Thanksgiving

Out of America: This week sees the best festival of the American year, when families put commercialism firmly in its place
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The Independent Online

One late autumn day each year, the United States takes leave from the business of humanity. Some things, of course, observe no time out: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, and the interest payable on Americans' mountain of credit card debt. Otherwise, life pretty much comes to a halt. And so it will be again this coming fourth Thursday of November.

For me, Thanksgiving Day – traced back to a rare moment of comity between the first settlers and native Americans in the early 1600s – is the most enjoyable of the country's annual holidays. It is intimate, and there are no presents. In contrast to Christmas, it is not commercial. You spend it with family or close friends. Thanksgiving is as American as the Fourth of July – but, mercifully, flag-waving and singing of the national anthem are not on the menu.

True, Canadians also celebrate Thanksgiving. But they do so in early October, as a glorified Harvest Festival. The American version started out that way, too, as a joint feast of Europeans and Indians, giving thanks for the earth's life-giving bounty. Gradually, though, its date settled at the end of November, long after everything bar apples, cabbages and winter greens has disappeared from our local Saturday farmers' market here in Washington DC. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln ordered that Thanksgiving be celebrated every year on the final Thursday of November; now its official date is the fourth Thursday of the month (which, more often than not, is the same thing).

Within a couple of centuries, the descendants of those same settlers were busy wiping the Indians off the face of the earth. But today's traditional Thanksgiving dinner reflects native fare of North America: turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and pecans. Variations on the theme are endless – whether it's great-grandma's turkey stuffing recipe handed down the generations, or one of those snazzy sweet potato recipes with which the food sections of the papers abound at this time of year. But the essentials never change.

Nor do the traditions –starting with the travel. Visit the airports this coming week, and you'd imagine America makes it a badge of honour to cross half the country to be with kith and kin. The British may have turned Christmas/New Year into a 10-day break, but the US is hard on our indolent heels, having unofficially stretched Thanksgiving into a five- or six-day break. Congress is off all week; by Tuesday everything is slowing down. Wednesday, Thanksgiving eve, always used to be the busiest travel day of the year, but now Tuesday is running it close. Of the ordeal of "home-again-Sunday", by air, road and rail, the less said the better.

Just before the big day, the National Turkey Federation will present Barack Obama with a live turkey. Like his predecessors, he will spare it from the executioners with a presidential pardon, and the fortunate fowl will live out his natural days wherever turkeys do. Every year, someone will resurrect the rivalry between New England and Virginia over their role in the birth of Anglo-America. The first permanent settlement, it is accepted, was at Jamestown while the first Thanksgiving, history records, was celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. Except that the claim is sure to resurface that the first one was really held in 1619 in the Colony of Virginia.

Every year, too, the NFL's Detroit Lions play a televised home game – a fitting choice of team given that the Lions, having lost 24 of their last 25 games, can be relied on for a suitably generous Thanksgiving welcome for their opponents. This year, more than ever, the holiday is a festival of gridiron, with three consecutive games filling the entire time from noon to midnight. In truth, American football, with its constant stoppages and time-outs is the perfect Thanksgiving sport, allowing you to savour a three-hour meal with friends and relatives and miss nothing.

And every year, the Paris-based International Herald Tribune used to publish (and, for all I know, will do so in 2009) a column in which the late, great humorist Art Buchwald once explained Thanksgiving to the French, studded with delightful schoolboy jokes about Le Jour de Merci Donnant, and the Peaux-Rouges who liked mais with their Pelerins.

But apart from the excesses of the table, American consumerism otherwise takes a day off. Other holidays in the US have become huge business: Christmas, obviously, expected to generate $460bn of spending this year; but also lesser ones, such as Valentine's and Mother's Day, which now account for an estimated $14bn apiece. Even Halloween, at $6bn and counting, is catching up fast. But, if you don't count the travel costs, Thanksgiving Day proper is a model of thriftiness. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, basic ingredients for a traditional dinner for 10 will work out at less than $5 a head this year, a shade less than in 2008. You can spend far more – most people do – but that somehow misses the point. Thanksgiving sees itself as egalitarian, and it's a fair bet that Barack or Michelle Obama will be dishing up turkey meals to the homeless at some point in the next few days.

However, restraint, if such it is, lasts less than 24 hours. The day after Thanksgiving is known as "Black Friday" – a frenetic kick-off for the Christmas shopping season that finally puts retailers into the black for the year, featuring huge promotional discounts to lure bargain-hunters. People will queue all night; last year an employee of a Walmart store on Long Island was literally trampled to death by a mob who stampeded in when he opened the doors for business at 5am. For that poor soul, Thanksgiving was the cruellest misnomer of all.