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Britsgiving: Pumpkin pie and Zoom singalongs for a very British Thanksgiving

After a year of doing nothing, are we all just happy to celebrate whatever the occasion? Juliana Piskorz talks to Brits celebrating an all-American holiday

Thursday 26 November 2020 14:16
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The concept of Thanksgiving is alien to many Brits. Celebrated across North America, the November holiday falls as this side of the pond is already looking forward to Christmas. We might be aware that it’s about expressing gratitude, the pilgrim fathers, and eating huge amounts of pumpkin pie. But we won’t be pencilling it into our diaries. That is until now.

This year, inexplicably, many Brits are choosing to celebrate the festival from the confines of their homes. Previous years have shown a growing interest in the holiday - in 2014 Waitrose reported a 95 per cent increase in turkey sales over Thanksgiving. Of course the roughly 200,000 American expats living in Britain could be to blame, but it seems the unique combination of 2020’s high levels of boredom and low levels of alternative distraction, is leading more people than ever to embrace it.

Hannah Burles, 27, says she is celebrating thanks entirely to the dearth of all other activities. “I would never usually celebrate Thanksgiving”, she tells The Independent, “I’m not even sure what day it falls on being British and knowing nothing about American holidays. But this year I’ve been searching for any type of event, big or small to make a fuss over."

Burles says social media has also given her a window of insight into the holiday that previous generations may not have had. “My content on Instagram has been inundated with [Thanksgiving] recipes, so I’ve decided to treat myself to a homemade pecan pie and maybe watch the Friends Thanksgiving episode.”

And while watching Friends may not be traditional, eating certainly is. Thanksgiving is technically a day of feasting to commemorate the moment English settlers landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and had a three-day festival to celebrate their first successful harvest in the New World. It became a national holiday 200 years later under Abraham Lincoln and has since morphed into a present-sharing, ten-course-buffet affair, where you reflect on what you're appreciative for in your life.

Eating and watching TV appears to be the most popular choice for Brits dipping their toes into Thanksgiving for the first time. Simon Jennings, 29, is staying with family in Wales and helping his grandmother celebrate her 101st birthday by baking a pumpkin pie. “I've never baked a pie in my life”, he says, “but this year I’ve had a real craving for Thanksgiving-style food, I don’t even know what a pumpkin desert tastes like, I hope it doesn't poison anyone, especially my grandma that would be very awkward.” 

I don’t even know what a pumpkin desert tastes like, I hope it doesn't poison anyone, especially my grandma that would be very awkward

This compulsion to bake is very much in keeping with the flurry of pies, tarts, cakes and sourdough loaves that have kept us busy during lockdown. Thanksgiving-themed baking is just another notch on our culinary bedpost. Even the US ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnstson has shared his favourite Thanksgiving recipe, posting a video to Twitter of himself prepping a dish of ‘North Carolina Sweet Potatoes’, ostensibly just mashed sweet potato.

But as well as an opportune moment for Brits to celebrate something - anything- in 2020. It is also a sombre reminder of the limits of the pandemic on those Americans stuck in the UK who will celebrate, away from family. Amrit Sandhu, 32, from California recently moved to London to complete an MBA. In her family she says Thanksgiving is almost more significant than Christmas so this year’s rather sombre celebrations will be strange.

“I am living with a Canadian friend from my course, we were planning on doing a big celebration this year but now with lockdown we’ll have to keep it just the two of us which will be weird,” she says. “We’re going to bake all day and try to make it as normal as possible, maybe even put our families' on zoom at the end of the table.” 

The same goes for Huw Holman, 33, whose father is American. Holman usually spends Thanksgiving feasting with family in Bristol. “My dad, brothers and I usually spend the evening singing the Star-Spangled Banner together” but this year because of Covid we’ll have to do it over Facetime,” he says. 

It’s an excuse to see people and I’m going to bring a macaroni cheese

For other Brits, the lockdown will not deter them from breaking corn-bread with their American friends. Nic Harding, 40 is determined to attend his friends’ Thanksgiving feast, “I don’t care about Thanksgiving to be honest, but It’s an excuse to see people and I’m going to bring a macaroni cheese, which is probably not traditional but it’s my favourite.”

After months of restrictions, and time spent away from loved ones, for many people 2020 has compounded a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, making it the perfect time to see Thanksgiving in a new way - as a holiday we can share in. So whether you use the day as an excuse to shovel calorific-snacks into your mouth or express your thanks for the Oxford coronavirus vaccine, one thing’s for sure, we're certainly all in dire need of a celebration.

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