Thanksgiving Notes for Brits

A traditional American Thanksgiving dinner table. (WestWord)

If an American asks you what you’re doing “for the holidays”, he or she is talking about Thanksgiving, which is almost upon us. When they’re going off somewhere for a week or two in the summer, it’s their vacation. Thanksgiving can be a tricky one for Brits in the U.S.

Although we grew up with Harvest Festivals, that really only entailed taking a few cans of baked beans to school or to church. Apart from Christmas and all the trimmings, there is nothing quite like the American Thanksgiving for us and we often underestimate the gravitas of the event.

It’s a huge time of family togetherness in the U.S.; my college girl is flying 1,000 miles home, the in-laws are coming in from another state and my American husband has been menu-planning for weeks. (He has long since taken over the reins of this one in case I forget some traditional dish or otherwise mess up.) Many of my friends host more than twenty family members for Thanksgiving dinner. In short, like Christmas in the UK, it’s a time when dysfunctional families all over the country try to play nice and avoid mentioning last year’s drunken outbursts.

Thanksgiving brings out the worst in perfectionists and Type A personalities, as Martha Stewart barrages the nation with strict instructions for the perfect turkey and how to transform your napkins into ears of corn. Houses are often trimmed with seasonal decorations such as dried out gourds that, to the uninitiated, look positively indecent.

Most Americans have a stock of Thanksgiving horror stories, examples of which you can find at the Gawker web site. Family members vie to show off their special dishes, to the point where there is always far too much food and everyone is living off leftovers until Christmas.

Non-Americans may find themselves invited to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving. As a guest on such an occasion, you should always ask if there’s anything you can bring, and then pray that you recognize the answer. If anyone mentions biscuits or gravy be aware that they’re not the same as British biscuits and gravy. American biscuits are not a sweet snack, but more like unsweetened scones to go with dinner. Gravy is usually thicker than the British version and, in the south in particular, more like a white or Bechamel sauce.

Although a Thanksgiving meal is somewhat like a traditional Christmas meal, you won’t be eating chipolata sausages or thick, rich pudding. As well as the turkey, you’ll probably encounter the famous Green Bean casserole, which is a questionable combination of green beans, canned mushroom soup and canned crispy fried onion rings. (I know.)

(Photo via Brown Eyed Baker)

If you’re lucky, you’ll get someone’s generations-old family recipe where not all the ingredients are canned, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. Other menu items include mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes or yams (which can also come topped with marshmallows), corn casserole and cranberry dressing. The dessert is usually pumpkin pie, pecan pie (in the South) and apple pie although family and regional traditions make for a wide variety of options.

If you’re a Brit attempting to host a Thanksgiving celebration, I recommend doing lots of homework first. An Internet search will bring up thousands of web sites walking you through every aspect, and there are more than a dozen phone hotlines you can call up in an emergency. Turkey company Butterball promises – “No question is too tough for these turkey talkers, and they are ready and excited to tackle any challenge you throw at them. Give them a call at 1-800-BUTTERBALL or send them your question.”

Oh and by the way, although Brits tend to stress the Thanks in Thanksgiving, most Americans put the stress on the second syllable – Thanksgiving.

What are your plans for the holiday?


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • gn

    The way I think of it is that British Christmas combines both American Thanksgiving (families getting together and eating too much) and American Christmas (gift-giving). Christmas in the US is less significant than in the UK — often just a day off work with gifts.

  • anne

    oh my days… green beans and canned soup…. i always thought thankgiving was the same dinner as our xmas dinner… how wrong lol

  • MJK12

    I beg to differ with dw, but American Christmas is exactly the same as Thanksgiving with the addition of gift giving. Certainly not just a day off of work.

    • gn

      I don’t know whether you’re originally from the UK, but Christmas is an extremely important holiday there with people generally travelling to visit relatives, and many taking the whole week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day off. I don’t sense that it’s quite that important in the US, because Thanksgiving takes some of the load.

      • Allison Kerpash

        Many of us Americans travel for Christmas instead of thanksgiving. But very few of us can take a whole week off work. Who would pay our bills? It is a very consumer driven society, and some places are open even on Christmas. Also there is the distinction that there are a great many religions in America that do not celebrate Christmas, and in some places even saying the words “Merry Christmas” instead of Happy Holidays can get you reprimanded. Christmas for every family is different.

        • Belle

          Around here, saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is a sure fire way to offend.

          • Belle

            Let me clarify… it doesn’t offend ME, but some of those I’ve come into contact with are adamant about it.

    • Caitlyn Johnston

      That is absolutely not true. The food is different, the ambiance is different, the decorations are different, the “reason for the season” is different… and the family fights are better!

      • blueophelia

        This one may be regional–where I’m from, the menu and ambiance are largely the same for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the family fights are only different because many family members ‘trade off’ the holidays (Thanksgiving with hubby’s family, Christmas with wife’s family). With all the hunters in my family growing up, many of the decorations were simply end-of-the-year outdoorsy rather than religious, and did double-duty for both holidays.

  • CarolynB

    Great column. I flew back across the Pond with my British hubby to be with my family for Thanksgiving. And I do find the Brits’ inclusion of chipolata sausages at Christmas rather mysterious!
    Cheers and hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving.

  • MariahEliza

    Being from the US myself, I can vouch for the casserole! Really, give it a try. And to the comments about Christmas – it’s still a very big deal, even bigger than Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is very much for stuffing ourselves and enjoying time with family, but a lot of family members opt to travel the long distances for Christmas (especially for young ones to open presents with Grandparents) instead of making the trip for Thanksgiving in November only to have to do it again in December. That’s how it is in the Mid-West anyway. Hope that helps!

  • Mary

    Just ran into your blog today. I’m Canadian, and yes, some of the American regional specialties are truly appalling. You mentioned the green bean casserole. Tried that, it wasn’t food…. But here is one that is so awful, I’ve never met a soul who liked it if they didn’t grow up with it. Sweet potato pie with marshmallows on top! I kid you not, some people consider Thanksgiving incomplete without this concoction. If you don’t believe it, look it up on

    • Caitlyn Johnston

      As a Yank, I totally back you up on that – Sweet potato pie is awful.

  • Caitlyn Johnston

    Wow – I had no idea we were that complicated about it. When you grow up with Thanksgiving, it doesn’t seem so crazy, but hearing it here… ha ha ha .. I guess we are a bit nuts, eh! And for the record, that green bean casserole is disgusting. :)

  • MegO

    Oh, Wow! Christmas is definitely the most important holiday of the year for most American Christians–or not. I have a lot of non-Christian friends who do Christmas, in fact. But that is the holiday most of all which defines family, is tradition laden, brings travelers home, the whole bit. NO COMPARISON with Thanksgiving. Interesting that someone would think otherwise–but–I am sure there are some strange animals out there, family-less, who do little for Christmas. I am also sure, when that is the case, that they feel very much out of the mainstream. Which is sad. We need that glue of tradition–and connectedness.

  • Belle

    The way we do it in my family – mainly because each of my siblings are in a different state – is that Thanksgiving is spent with our own immediate family, and Christmas is spent at Mom and Dad’s with EVERYBODY. The food is basically the same, with Christmas being a somewhat toned-down version of Thanksgiving. And I have to agree… that green bean casserole is nasty. But I do love sweet potato pie!

  • Lorri

    I’m American, and my family has never cooked a Green Bean Casserole and never will.

    Please realize the variety of traditions and different levels of cooking skill and sophistication in different households!

    This reminds me of a German guy with a green card I once knew who looked at the grocery store ads in the newspaper and concluded that Thanksgiving was about a lot of canned goods.

    I had to set him straight. There is always a danger that expats only pick up on the lowest common denominator because they don’t know any Americans or they assume the Americans they know represent all.