This Pilgrim's Progress: A Brit Attempts Thanksgiving (And Learns a Little More About PR) 

While New Englanders had celebrated for years, and the holiday was declared to boost morale throughout the Revolutionary War, it didn't catch on nationally until much later — and how it did is a fantastic lesson in PR.


I get it: We lost the war. As a Brit who conducts more than half his business in the United States, I've learned the hard way that Americans don't like to hear the States referred to as "the colonies." Who knew?

With a PR practice that at times has forced me — and at other times has lured me — into the American way of life, I must confess Thanksgiving is a bit of a head-scratcher. A group of religious fundamentalists goes off the grid, hires barely competent sailors to take them across the Atlantic and plunks down in an area that seemed newly opened to them but — plot twist — had recently been devastated by a horrifying plague. Would I be thankful for making it through that first winter without taking Donner Party measures? (See: I've been listening to your history!) Of course, I would be sobbing with relief. However, can I, the descendant of sensible Old Yorkers who stayed put in their ancient city relate to the Pilgrims' utterly self-imposed dilemma? No, sir, I cannot.

What's more, beyond the problematic cross-cultural narrative, it seems more than a little disingenuous to enshrine one dinner and gloss over the brutal strife and warfare that marked the remainder of New Englanders' colonial interactions with the indigenous inhabitants. Beyond that, Thanksgiving itself was a political ploy promoted by none other than Abraham Lincoln. While New Englanders had celebrated for years, and the holiday was declared to boost morale throughout the Revolutionary War, it didn't catch on nationally until much later — and how it did is a fantastic lesson in PR.

As it turns out, the British Army was a little miffed at losing the colonies (there, I said it!) and absconded a variety of goods, including William Bradford's diary from Plymouth Plantation. American historians rummaging around in London rediscovered it in 1855, transcribed it and published it the following year. The book became a bestseller in the North during the lead-up to the American Civil War, promoting the idea that the Pilgrims were America's true founders, as it placed America's founding myth firmly in Massachusetts — as opposed to Jamestown, Virginia (which was actually colonized by the English first).

Why bother with all of this? Why do these details matter? What light do they shed on the true nature of Thanksgiving? To my mind, they do not shed any. And perhaps that is what I love about this holiday. The notion of giving thanks in a purely secular manner appeals to me deeply. But learning about the convoluted path to stuffing and cranberry sauce (neither of which those Pilgrims ate) reminds us that culture is a set of stories we tell ourselves — something of which I am made aware daily as one in the content-generating and narrative-building business. Also, I would be horribly remiss if I didn't profess my ardent admiration for Lincoln's mastery of public relations. What deft spin! What a flawless campaign! There can be no larger win than promoting an entire holiday — and doing so with such finesse that an entire nation doesn't realize it took 250 years to catch on.

Having an international practice has allowed me to take in a good deal of culture from around the world. It's a field that takes all types and crosses all time zones. One day it's Dubai and the next it's L.A. Everyone has their different ways of going about business, but the greater the cross-current of cultures I experience, the more I see that we all want the same things, even if their manifestations look a little different from country to country. Being deferential to various cultural practices has made me a student of the calendar: understanding the function of a holiday is a chance to understand the context that dictates a client's needs — and perhaps to see what led our paths to cross in the first place. It's also a course in patience and tolerance: One must create space to adapt in each client relationship because we are all on different calendars literally and metaphorically.

This is a lesson anyone should undertake and it's one that Zoom and the post-COVID telecommuting climate has made all but mandatory. To be sure, it's confusing at times, and occasionally tricky to navigate, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. Having the chance to learn about the world through my clients guarantees that each day will bring me something new. And for that, I am thankful.

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