The Observer

How to Explain Thanksgiving to French People?

In 1952, a young American journalist set out to enlighten the French about the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday. He did so with a twinkle in the eye and his tongue firmly in cheek.
© White House

The journalist was Art Buchwald, later renowned as a Pulitzer Prize-winning political commentator and humorist but then a rookie reporter based in Paris. Through talent, effort and a hefty dose of chutzpah, Buchwald persuaded the editor of the Herald Tribune – the European edition of the New York Herald – to entrust him with a regular column covering the cultural happenings and charming eccentricities of his adopted city. So popular were those articles that Art Buchwald became everyone’s favorite American in Paris.

American journalist Art Buchwald in 1953.

His Thanksgiving column, “Le Merci Donnant,” came out in 1952 and laid the foundations of his reputation. Shrewdly, Buchwald surmised that since Americans ate the same meal every fourth Thursday in November, he could easily reuse the column to accompany the turkey and trimmings. In subsequent years, he would tweak the headline (“A Turkey with French Dressing,” for instance, or “Le Grand Thanksgiving”) and add a kicker, claiming, for instance, that the text had been leaked in 1621 by a Plymouth Colony pooh-bah. Alternatively, it was described as a confession to a vindictive sergeant in the Foreign Legion. Or an attempt to address the franc-dollar exchange rate. Or, best of all, an endorsement from the U.S. turkey growers’ association.

Despite these minor flights of fancy, the body copy remained unchanged for 50 years. Art Buchwald always considered “Le Merci Donnant” his favorite piece, and it still makes us laugh today. Read on to find out why.

Le Merci Donnant

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.

Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims (Pèlerins) who fled from l’Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts’ content.

They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Américaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai) in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pélerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pélerins was when they taught them to grow corn (maïs). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pélerins.

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pélerins’ crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maïs was raised by the Pélerins than Pélerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.

Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.

It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilomètres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant: “Go to the damsel Priscilla (allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth (la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action (un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.

“I am a maker of war (je suis un fabricant de la guerre) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar (vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden.”

Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable à être emballé), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l’étonnement et la tristesse).

At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: “If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?” (Où est-il, le vieux Kilomètres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance?)

Jean said that Kilomètres Deboutish was very busy and didn’t have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilomètres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice: “Why don’t you speak for yourself, Jean?” (Chacun a son goût.)

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.

No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well-fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilomètres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Article published in the November 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.