I am a potential convert to the ‘Holiday Season’, as the general Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, celebrations are collectively known in the USA. This way of grouping everything together under one banner is peculiar to the USA (although I understand it applies to some degree in Canada too) and often parodied or mocked in the UK. The idea of a ‘Holiday Card’ or wishing someone ‘Happy Holidays’ is seen as vulgar or too politically correct, and in recent years there have been repeated conspiracy theories about various British institutions abolishing Christmas in favour of ‘Winterval’ or other secular ideas. These fears usually turn out to be founded on nonsense, but the very fact that people in the UK are so protective over Christmas shows how different it is to the much more secular and multicultural approach in evidence over here.
Thanksgiving, like many cultural traditions, is hard to pin down exactly in terms of origins, meanings, symbolism, and so on. Most agree that some of the English immigrants who arrived here in the early 17th Century held a Day of Thanksgiving (a common Puritan practice to thank God for His bounty) because of a good harvest. The famous account of the post-harvest feast at which the local Wampanoag people were entertained would not have been called a Thanksgiving at the time as it was more celebratory than worshipful. However, through a variety of routes, that story has been linked with other traditions and tales of Thanksgiving and the modern celebration has arisen.
Thanksgiving in New York is exactly how you’d expect if you’ve ever watched American films or TV. We tried to get to see the Macy’s parade balloons being inflated but it was far too crowded. We avoided the parade itself altogether, deciding to watch it on TV, and found it kitsch, camp, commercial and far-too-frequently interrupted by adverts. On the other hand, as a way to start the Holidays, it is excellent. Because stores in October are so devoted to Halloween, Thanksgiving acts as an official start to the promotion of Holiday gifts, decorations, cards, etc. One wonderful result of this is that one is spared the annual British grumbling about seasonal wares being on sale ‘earlier and earlier every year’ (which, if it were actually true, would surely have resulted in year-round stocks of Lindt reindeer at least a decade ago).
Thanksgiving apparently requires no gifts, no cards, and no special clothes, has no songs, and no religious connotations. It is simply a time when most people spend the day with their families and eat themselves silly. That’s what I did, not so much with family (who all inconveniently live thousands of miles away) but with friends and colleagues, and it was lovely; the food was uncompromisingly sweet and stodgy, which suits me fine.
Back home, I always thought those who avoided saying ‘Christmas’ to spare sensibilities were a bit wimpish. This side of the pond, my feelings have changed a little. I have met one Jewish woman who was genuinely offended that a group of people sang ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ and asked the audience to join in. She may be a little quick to take offence, but then wouldn’t I be if the winter celebrations of another faith totally dominated the season, in spite of my own religion being the older one?
Luckily I am one of those smug people who gets to have his stollen and eat it at Christmas, given that I am cosily reliant on all the nostalgic Christian-based traditions in which I was immersed as a child but, as an atheist, can set myself apart pretentiously and claim to retain the more tinselly elements in a purely secular, even ironic way.
Brits love to complain about the Americanisation of Christmas (“when did Father Christmas become Santa Clause?”, etc.) but the customs remain somewhat distinct. For a start, institutional carol singing is much less obvious here – schools are determinedly non-denominational and, as a teacher, I have missed the opportunities for joining in with old favourites. Christmas is also less marked here, with fewer days off, fewer closures of stores, reductions in services, etc. The main meal is quite different: although turkey is common, you won’t find Christmas pudding, mince pies, brandy butter, or Christmas crackers on most people’s tables. Advent calendars also seem much less common here.
Something that I miss tremendously about a UK Christmas is the familiar branding. I never pretended to be superior to marketing or commercialism, but it’s only now I’m out of it that I see how much my Christmas depended upon the BBC idents, the Roses and Quality Streets, the After Eights, and the special edition of the Radio Times that, although I haven’t bought it in about fifteen years, was still a comforting sight in the rack at my local supermarket.
Something that got me very excited about moving to New York was the increased chance of a White Christmas. Surprisingly (it turns out film and TV aren’t always honest in all regards!), the chance of a covering of snow here on the day itself is only around 20%. That is quite an improvement on London’s 6% but, as we get closer, it becomes apparent we won’t have one this year. We have had our first snowfall though – a few inches in just a few hours last weekend. Its traces still remain on the roadsides, and I got my first view of snowplows and snowblowers. I get terribly excited by any reminder that the climate here is substantially different to the UK’s. Despite the fact that Brits love to discuss the weather, here there really is something to talk about. Daytime temperatures have recently been below freezing all day, something that is quite rare in the UK, and seeing Central Park’s lakes and ponds all frozen and the icicles dangling from its rocks on my morning run is quite magical.
The things I shall miss most of all this Christmas are undoubtedly friends and family. We are so lucky to have Skype, Facebook, etc. to enable us to travel the world and still keep in touch with home, but conversation is not really what loved ones are for at Christmas. Their real purpose is as someone to sit with while marinating in gin and tonic and letting another terrible sitcom Christmas special wash over us. I guess I shall have to postpone such pleasures for the time being and remotely wish everyone Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Chanukah Sameach, and Happy Holidays.