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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 18:00 GMT
US diary: Holiday habits and hangovers
BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei
By Matt Frei
BBC Washington correspondent

In his latest column for BBC News Online, Matt Frei tries to digest turkey, Thanksgiving and talk shows.

American companies may be stingy with their holidays - employees tend to get be a paltry two weeks a year - but the Union makes up for it.

Workers erect the holiday tree outside the US Capitol Building
The pumpkins have gone, so now it is time for trees and fairy lights
America boasts plenty of nationwide holidays, most of them commemorating famous individuals or institutions of state. There is Martin Luther King Day on the third Monday of January or Christopher Columbus Day in October and George Washington's birthday celebrated in general as Presidents Day on the third Monday in February.

Not to mention Labor Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day and Groundhog Day (2 February and, I am afraid, definitely not nationwide).

It was President Nixon who had the bright idea of moving most of these holidays from dates to a particular Monday in the month, thus creating a long list of long weekends.

Mr Nixon clearly did not take those of us with children into account, who long for Monday mornings as a moment of liberation.

What surprised me is that a country as religious as the US has only one official religious holiday and that is Christmas Day. But then everything you say about America is true... and the opposite!

So, 30% of US citizens believe in the Second Coming but America also enshrines the separation of church and state in its constitution.

The churches are packed every Sunday but an official Easter holiday would, I suppose, be deemed politically incorrect, because it singles out one religion. What about Chinese New Year, Yom Kippur, or Eid?

Peace to pumpkins

Most of the holidays may be areligious but that does not mean they are not taken very seriously.

On Flag Day the Stars and Stripes flutter even more prominently than they usually do. At Halloween, American doorsteps are festooned with skeletons and pumpkins.

Thanksgiving is the only day of the year that my gym prevents the driven and the deranged from pursuing bodily perfection
This year our neighbours removed their Give Peace a Chance placard - which was beginning to look a little irrelevant seven months after the invasion of Iraq - and erected what looked like a giant spider web in which several fluorescent skeletons found themselves being devoured by large plastic tarantulas.

Now that the pumpkins have rotted and the skeletons have been shelved, it is time for the Christmas Fairy Lights: the illuminated crib scene with blinking Baby Jesus or the herd of deer bought from Home Depot and easily assembled in the comfort of your own garage.

Not to mention the award-winning Christmas trees. Our last outside light-bulb exploded the other day. Our house looks as if it has been darkened by a very localised power cut or, for that matter, an unpaid electricity bill. We need to get our act together!

Thanksgiving has a more solemn feel about it. In Washington the streets are deserted as if a neutron bomb had struck the capital of the Free World.

The shops are closed and it is the only day of the year that my gym prevents the driven and the deranged from pursuing bodily perfection.

Digestive challenge

Perhaps the Thanksgiving solemnity stems from the collective recollection of that moment in history when the pilgrims sat down with a bunch of native Americans - before they began slaughtering them - and thanked the Lord for an abundant harvest and the absence of pestilence.

These days the solemnity and the empty streets have more to do with the fact that the nation's digestive tracts have been seriously challenged by that lethal combination of oversized turkey - the smallest I could find weighed 10 lb - and pumpkin pie, the culinary answer to household glue.

People are not on the streets because they are all at home, clutching their guts and their anti-heartburn tablets.

President Bush serves Thanksgiving turkey to troops in Baghdad
If the turkey did not generate indigestion, the talk shows did
I was just about to settle down for an afternoon of indigestion and agony when the phone rang. President Bush had given Laura, his parents and the Crawford turkey the slip by nipping off to Baghdad for the night on Air Force One.

Much has been written about the astonishing secrecy of the mission - the unmarked car, the baseball cap pulled over the president's face, the fact that his security detail was whittled down to a mere 12 (!), the lights out as Air Force One prepared to land in a Baghdad bristling with shoulder-launch missiles.

The one I liked was the British Airways pilot who almost gave the game away somewhere over the Mediterranean when he looked out of the window and saw the president's distinctive plane with its white body and blue bulge whizzing past.

"I say, are you Air Force One?", he radioed with the crackling collegiality of the skies.

Crackly pause. Then "No sir, we are Gulf Stream Four!" came the curt response and blatant lie. "Ohhh," said the man from BA tartly.

Questions and answers

If it was not the turkey that caused indigestion it was the wall-to-wall post-mortem of the president's trip on talk TV.

Was it done with the election campaign in mind? (Of course!)

Was the president genuinely moved when he teared up, holding a 14-lb turkey? (Of course!)

Would the image erase memories of that other war time photo opportunity, when the president landed on board the USS Abraham Lincoln in his contour-hugging flight suit, in front of a banner declaring Mission Accomplished. (Probably!)

Several hundred dead American soldiers later, that picture has come to embarrass the White House.

Will the Baghdad excursion make a difference to the occupation and the plans for Iraqi sovereignty, now challenged by a group of increasingly assertive mullahs representing the Shia majority. (No!)

Dumbstruck Democrats

The president's trip was not devoid of risks. It boosted the morale of some rather demoralised troops.

It silenced - for now at least - those critics who have slammed George W Bush for not sufficiently feeling the pain of the families whose sons and daughters have fallen in his pre-emptive war.

And it left the Democratic candidates dumbstruck for a response. Twice in one week.

Before Thanksgiving it was the Medicare Bill which signalled that Republicans were trampling all over their opponents' hallowed ground.

Add to that some very positive economic figures and you can see why the Democrats are suffering from a prolonged hangover.



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