Ode to the Bird of Courage
Today is Thanksgiving, and as an American in London, I’ve had lots of people saying “Happy Thanksgiving!”, followed by “Is that what I’m supposed to say?”
Yes, that’ll do fine. And I’m pleased people are at least vaguely aware of the holiday, because it’s one of my favourites. It conjures lots of great memories of food and family, from the times as a young child when I thought it was a good idea to stoke family arguments about President Clinton, to the last couple of years when I’ve made massive feasts in tiny London flats for friends who’ve never experienced Thanksgiving before but seemed to ‘get it’ immediately.
All holidays are, to some extent, stories – the story of Jesus being born, the story of a guy who tried to blow up Parliament, the story of rebirth and renewal. But Thanksgiving offers two more selling points. First, it’s completely secular, and open to absolutely anyone. And second, as someone who likes stories, I find that it particularly encourages storytelling.
Lots of cultures have some kind of holiday based on the harvest feast. In America, legend has it that 150 pilgrims and Native Americans celebrated the harvest of 1621 by sitting down together for a feast. The historical accuracy of this is highly dubious, not least because of the unneighbourly way early settlers began to treat Native Americans shortly afterwards.
But in the modern version of Thanksgiving, which originates with Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation of a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father”, it’s not uncommon to go around the table before diving into the meal, each person mentioning what they’re thankful for. It’s a natural invitation to tell a story, invariably one with a happy ending.
Then, there’s the turkey, which – dry, bland, and beige as it is – is certainly the least exciting part of the meal. Hence the glorious side dishes: Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, stuffing, gravy, carrots, mashed potatoes, cornbread, biscuits, pumpkin pie, pecan pie… You get the idea.
But the turkey has had at least one prominent supporter. In a letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned the choice of the bald eagle as the national bird of the US. “He is a Bird of bad moral Character”, he wrote. “He does not get his Living honestly”.
“The turkey, by contrast, is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Now, let’s go watch some football.