This week I was asked if Thanksgiving was as wholesome and heart-warming as it seems to an outsider. I said yes, and explained why. But, the more I have thought about this, the more I realised that I was wrong. The real answer is, no. It’s not.
It is so much better than that.
The truth of the matter is that Thanksgiving is absolutely wonderful. It is, literally, my favourite day of the year. It’s everything that Christmas should be but, sadly, often isn’t. It does not focus on what you want but rather on what you have. There are no presents, there is no insane pressure, it is just a happy, inclusive meal.
And what a meal. The food is delicious, and abundant, and exactly the same every year. That’s part of its appeal. Of course slight variations do occur between families and regions of the country and, upon marriage, a new couple has to make some compromises. Tom, for example, gave up wild rice for the much better option of roast potatoes, but in exchange he kept cornbread. Personal preferences do get a bit of a look in. Kimberly has introduced red cabbage, not a traditional dish but she has, after all, grown up abroad and, I have to admit, it is quite nice with turkey. Meanwhile, Christopher has tried to impose a total ban on pecans, to which, of course, no one pays any attention at all. But, most of the menu is set, in stone. Others may disagree but for me the best part of the meal is always the pumpkin pie, which is, quite simply, the most wonderful substance on earth. The taste, the texture, the aroma, the spices, they all add up to autumn, and family, and Thanksgiving.
The thing I love most about Thanksgiving is that absolutely everyone is welcome. No one is alone who doesn’t want to be. It is not family-only. Friends, acquaintances, total strangers are welcome. A friend of mine was sent to New York on secondment for six months and arrived there in July. Before he left, I told him that I was going to be over for Thanksgiving and that we would go to my brother’s house, so he needed to tell people that he had plans. He thought I was kidding but, within a week of arriving, he had already been invited home by two of his new colleagues. As soon as they realised he would still be there in November, the invites started coming in.
I knew they would, and it wouldn’t have been strange for him to have accepted one of them. We always have a big Thanksgiving dinner and I never know everyone who is sitting around the table. A few years ago we had an older American couple who were on a year-long trip around the world. We had met them in a tea shop two weeks before Thanksgiving and while they were genuinely pleased to have been invited, they weren’t shocked. They were Americans, it was Thanksgiving, they had no where else to go, why wouldn’t we? This year, we have a girl coming who is over here studying for a year and is the daughter of a friend of a friend, or perhaps the friend of a friend’s daughter’s friend. I’m not entirely sure. We have also invited a friend’s cousin’s son, and the entire family from across the street who recently went to America on holiday and is now very curious about what this holiday they have heard so much about is really like.
As you can imagine, it is always an eclectic group. I have, however, started to notice that the mix of people is changing. Not that long ago, we were three generations, with small children at one end of the scale and grannies and granddads at the other. Now, the older people have gone and so have the little ones, making us a table full of young adults and, slightly, older ones. It will take some getting used to. But, I suppose, in the greater scheme of things it won’t be all that long before we are back to the grandparents, and the small children, and whoever else happens to be around.
And that’s as it should be because Thanksgiving belongs to everyone, regardless of age or culture or background or religion or even place of birth. America is such a multicultural society, what used to be called a melting-pot, and every group has its own customs. Not everyone celebrates Christmas, or Eid, or Chanukkah. Not everyone thinks St Patrick’s Day or Chinese New Year or Kwanzaa is special. But everyone celebrates Thanksgiving. If you arrived as an immigrant the morning of Thanksgiving, by the time the turkey was done you would have as much right to claim the holiday as your own as the people whose ancestors went over on the Mayflower. It’s that kind of holiday.
And, the highlight – besides the turkey and the pumpkin pie – is that during the meal you go around the table and ask everyone what they are especially thankful for that year. Obviously for us, it is Kimberly’s health. I’m not sure if everyone does this, but we always have. I think it reminds people that it is not just a dinner party. It’s Thanksgiving.
And so, to everyone who is celebrating Thanksgiving this week, I wish you a very happy holiday. To those who have not yet experienced Thanksgiving, I suggest you sit next to expat Americans in a tea shop the week or so beforehand and appear interested. And to the turkeys…well, to the turkeys, I simply want to say, thank you.
Not Leo Tolstoy (aka Eileen Riley)