Sandy’s Garden ... Cranberry, pumpkin and sweet potato day

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The fourth Thursday in November has a special significance for our cousins in the United States of America.

That Thursday is celebrated as Thanksgiving Day. The very first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 and was a very local holiday. However, beginning with George Washington in 1789, annual presidential proclamations used to declare the last Thursday of November as the Thanksgiving date until, in 1941, a United States Congressional declaration officially designated the fourth Thursday of November as the date of the Thanksgiving holiday. This year, it’s the 22nd and, although it’s still a national holiday, analysis of the votes cast in the recent Presidential election reveals that members of the Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean races are now numerically superior to the numbers of members of European races; and one might wonder whether Thanksgiving Day will become ever-less-significant to coming generations of Americans.

The reason for this is that the first Europeans to settle in what we now call the United States of America were the Pilgrim Fathers, a group of seventy-four men and twenty-eight women who had set sail from Plymouth in September 1620 intent on setting up a colony in North America where they hoped to find freedom to worship and to live untroubled by what they saw as unreasonable pressures to conform with the ‘normal’ social and religious customs in England at that time. They called their first settlement in Massachusetts ‘Plymouth’ after the English port whence they had sailed, eschewing the perhaps more obvious name of ‘New Plymouth’. Incidentally, the area in which Plymouth was built … if that’s not too grand a term for these first houses … was called ‘Massachuset’ by the native residents, who were members of the Wampanoag ‘Indian’ tribes; it means ‘by the range of hills’; and, of course, these original residents were mistakenly termed ‘Red Indians,’ a mistake which has never been corrected, for the native peoples of the United States of America are still called ‘Indians’, though the adjective ‘red’ has been dropped. These largely friendly native people showed the newcomers how to cultivate sweet potatoes, pumpkins, sweetcorn and cranberries and how to catch and breed turkeys. After a struggle through the first winter, when food was scarce, the new community planted their first crops in the spring of 1621, gathering their first harvest in the autumn of that year; and, with this safely stored, they invited their native neighbours to join them for a festival to offer thanks to God for his help in the establishment of their settlement. Thus was born Thanksgiving Day, a day when American families … particularly of European descent … gather together to remember that first settlement, enjoying a meal of turkey with cranberry sauce, sweetcorn and sweet potatoes, although this last item is quite often omitted from the modern menu. Pumpkin pie is the traditional dessert.

Thanksgiving Day is regarded as the beginning of the Christmas season in the United States; and the Friday after Thanksgiving Day is known as ‘Black Friday’, not because it is an unlucky day in any sense: rather it is because, in traditional hand-written accounting, profits are recorded in black ink and losses in red; and that Friday is said to be the best day of the year for retailers, when profits … recorded in black ink … are maximised. The Christmas shopping spree supposedly starts in earnest on ‘Black Friday’, when the happy atmosphere of Thanksgiving gets people into holiday mood, with family get-togethers, entertaining, dining out, buying gifts and decorating the home. And there has been a reverse influence on us, the islanders whence the pioneer Pilgrim Fathers came; for their enjoyment of turkey at a celebratory meal has been adopted in our islands for our ‘traditional’ Christmas Dinner. However, we haven’t espoused sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie so far, thank goodness!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society