This week in the UK, thousands of foreign-born immigrants will be celebrating a non-British festival. They will be attempting to pursue their quaint native customs, such as gathering together with others of their kind and eating traditional foods. Will the EDL and the BNP be waving placards? Will the Daily Mail run an editorial about the erosion of British values?
Probably not. Because it's just Americans celebrating Thanksgiving, and we're fine with that. We like Americans. They have pleasing accents and we understand their culture because we've already assimilated most of it. They think we're cute (if a bit quiet), we think they're cute (if a bit loud). They are Like Us, a bit.
Apparently there are about 200,000 American-born people living in the UK, which isn't that many - about 0.3% of the population and 3% of all UK immigrants. For some reason, though, about half my friends seem to be US expats. Perhaps it's because I'm drawn to their voices. If you've grown up on American media, as most of us have, having an actual American around feels a bit like living in a movie, similar to when you're walking through London at night and hear a busker playing a saxophone and a voiceover starts narrating film noir plots in your head. (I assume this isn't just me?) Anyway, that's what Americans are like. In my opinion.
(Which movie they evoke depends on the accent, of course: ideally you want a Southerner for that Tennessee Williams feel, a New Yorker for the Woody Allen vibe, a Texan for that Western atmosphere, and a Californian for more or less everything else. Assuming you're shallow enough to choose your friends based on what films they remind you of, which I'm not, obviously. Probably. I will note that I'm missing a Southern friend, though. Applications should include a audio tape.)
I asked a few American expat friends what it was like, celebrating Thanksgiving in the UK, and I got a general sense that the question made them mildly homesick. "It's not a tradition here," said my friend Jason. "Non-USians know it's a holiday but I think it tends to be just seen as a dinner party. For us there's still very much a tradition of being thankful for what we have and celebrating it with the indulgence of food."
Jennifer commented that "celebrating thanksgiving in the UK is kinda pale. You don't have Thursday (or Friday) off, so most people observe it over the weekend which means you don't even the get the sense that you're part of the celebration."
Should we adopt Thanksgiving as a UK holiday? A couple of my friends thought so, pointing out that in the US, it helps to stave off Christmas saturation until the start of December. It's also a holiday with no presents, cards or non-food-related rituals; it can be religious but doesn't have to be. The only common thread is thankfulness (and pumpkin pie).
But a holiday based around an emotion? Can the British cope with that? We can only just manage Valentine's Day. Having to express both romance and gratitude in one year might overload us. We're not great at giving thanks, at least not when it matters. I've said thank you to shop assistants probably a hundred times in the last year. Have I thanked my parents for bringing me up in that time, or my partner for his support? Of course not. Thanks to my middle-class British upbringing, I find sincere and openly expressed gratitude to be frankly embarrassing, and so do they.
"Something we've done in the past," Jason told me, "is just go around the table at some point and ask people to share something for which they are thankful. It's very positive and actually kinda helps foster that feeling of community for the day." I think this is great, a lovely idea and well worth doing. I also think that if my family tried it, the sheer volume of embarrassment generated would actually contribute to global warming.
Perhaps we'd be better suited to celebrating a different emotion. Mildly Disapproving Day, anyone? The Festival of That Pleasant Feeling You Get When It's Nearly Time For Elevenses? You bring the digestive biscuits, I'll bring the emotional repression, and once everyone's drunk we can mutter something inaudible about being grateful for each other and then deny it. It'll be fun.