Just before my senior year of college, thanks to a generous scholarship from the Georgia Rotary Student Program, I had the opportunity to attend the International Summer School at the University of Oslo in Norway. (By the way, the application process for this scholarship is currently open!) The students hailed from more than 80 countries around the world. The experience was equal parts magic (there’s nothing quite like the views en route between Oslo and Bergen) and practical learning (people from almost anywhere will eat rice with a bean sauce, but music is harder to agree upon). Regularly scheduled “Cultural Nights” were intended to help students get to know each others’ cultures, from local crafts to music, dance, style of dress, food, and more.
Fortunately, making a presentation during Cultural Night was optional. Why fortunately? Because neither I nor the other U.S. students could think of anything to present that would represent U.S. culture (excluding the political culture) as a whole. This is not to say that the U.S. does not have its own particular cultural traditions – jazz and bluegrass music, Native American arts, and quilting in the Deep South come to mind as examples – but the fact is that few are common to the vast majority of Americans. Most are regionally based or associated with a particular population. If you are not a jazz musician or quilter or a subject matter expert on the same, to present those as “your” cultural heritage can come across as cultural posing at best or robbery at worst. The few U.S. cultural traditions that are embraced throughout the country — e.g., Hollywood movies — are at least to some extent also embraced worldwide, and therefore need no introduction. As one of my fellow U.S. students said, “What are we supposed to do? Show off a Big Mac?” Gasp. But I understood his point.
Looking back on those days, I realize that there’s one thing I could have “shown off” as a beautiful cultural tradition that is shared by most people in the U.S.: Thanksgiving. I know Thanksgiving is not perfect. We have a knack for overlooking the more troublesome part of the post-Thanksgiving history – the part where countless Native Americans died. And then there’s the problem with Americans giving thanks for what they have, only to turn around hours later to literally run each other over in the quest for more. (Despite this, the majority of Americans are against stores opening on Thanksgiving, even if there is demand.) And as far as I’m concerned, I could really do without American football. (Head injuries, people! Too many head injuries!) Then there’s the fact that not everyone has family or loved ones to turn to, which can make the holiday’s big-extended-family stereotype more than a bit depressing.
But all this aside, the core of Thanksgiving – the communal expressing of gratitude with intention and ritual – is absolutely beautiful. In its modern form, it’s a cultural tradition we can be proud to share.
One of my most memorable Thanksgivings took place not in the U.S. at all. I was residing in Mexico City at the time (a short-lived venture) and decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner on a whim. The family with whom I was living – ever ready for a celebration – embraced my efforts wholeheartedly. Somebody even managed to find a fresh turkey. (I will admit to begging for help when the bird showed up in all its birdness, with its neck and some of the feathers still on.) The rest I improvised, but in the end, there it was – a table full of turkey and sweet potatoes and green bean casserole. The (thankfully large) table was also surrounded by some 20 odd people who – in an action that still touches me more than a decade later – enthusiastically and without hesitation took turns saying what they were thankful for. (It was like that scene in Italy from Eat, Pray, Love, except this scene came before the book and movie.) We may not have been in the U.S., and I may have been the only American at the table, but the spirit of Thanksgiving was there, as strong and bright as anyone could hope.
Over the years, I’ve spent many Thanksgivings away from my family – some of them when I lived in Seattle and couldn’t afford to fly home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, some in Miami/Fort Lauderdale because I was too exhausted to fly for both holidays, and others abroad. Some were with close friends, while others included people I barely knew. Each had its own special food features – Puerto Rican pastelón, Cuban lechón asado (ohhhhh), Polish peas and carrots, or deep friend turkey. But each held that golden aura of what Thanksgiving is – sharing, and sharing the love.
I miss my family at these times – my Dad hosts a joyful Thanksgiving reunion with his brothers at his home in the North Carolina mountains – and I look forward to attending more of those in the future. But looking back on Thanksgivings (and Christmas Eves, too) with my Mom and Dad, I realize that it was common for a few non-family individuals to join us at the table. That is one of the things I am most grateful for – that my family taught me that the Thanksgiving spirit is like a parent’s love. There’s always enough to go around.
Tomorrow marks my immediate family’s second Thanksgiving in Colombia. Last year, we hosted a small dinner at our house. This year, we’re taking advantage of our days off (we still adhere to a U.S. work schedule) to fly to Medellín, a city we’ve not yet visited. There’s supposedly a Thanksgiving dinner happening there, and we’ll be joining in the festivities.
Wherever you are, may the spirit of Thanksgiving surround you and those around you. Blessings.
Hey!! Have fun in Medellin!! I remember last Thanksgiving VERY fondly! 🙂
Me too, Scott! Won’t be the same without you here this year!
My favorite of all holidays. Again, this year I am packing in preparation for yet another casa. Thanksgving is on the self until 2014 where I imagine my new Lagos family gathered around my table in Portugal, discovering the magical slices of jellied cranberry served in granny’s crystal dish, the can’s ridges still visible on the edges. My friends around the world, let us be thankful for each other. We have no borders, our love of the world crosses them.
Love that last sentence of your comment, Constance – “We have no borders, our love of the world crosses them.” Well said. Wishing you and yours a joyous Thanksgiving.
This was a great story. The comments are wonderful too. Wherever you are, whomever you’re with, whatever meal you consume, have a moment to say “Thanks” for all we have.
The only thing I can say in response is, “Exactly!” 🙂 If we all do that, it will be a special time – no matter what. Thank you for adding your thoughts, Laura. Have a great Thanksgiving!
I really like this blog.
If I may, I prefer a Montreal smoked meat sandwich on rye to Turkey. In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated in a lower profile as Canadian holidays are, in October, due to the lower harvest season.
“We have a knack for overlooking the more troublesome part of the post-Thanksgiving history – the part where countless Native Americans died”.
As do the people of the Latin World ignore the destruction of cultures before the arrival of the Spanish/Portuguese explorers financed by mean kings and queens.
…while the West ONLY weeps for the painful exile (i.e., 25 miles) of the Palestinians who are refused to practice as doctors, lawyers and engineers in Lebanon ( 24 refugee camps scattered across Lebanon, Jordan and Syria). Financed by taxpayers.
I would like that there be a day of fasting for 24 hours prior to the traditional Thanksgiving meal.
I wish we were in Killa or Cartagena now. It’s 20 degrees up here.
I was not born in the Unites States, but I lives there for 6 years as a graduate student and one thing I remembers fondly is the spirit of Thanks Giving. I was away from my family and had very few friends (yep, grad students do not get to afford a social life), but I spent every single Thanks Giving dinner in the cozy home of a very generous family (each year a different one) surrounded my people I barely (or didn’t) know yet whom adopted me without second thoughts. They always used to say that nobody should spend Thanks Giving alone and the were more than happy to share their meal and their tradition with me. I have sweet memories of those holidays and I am very grateful for them as well.
Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. A joyous, warm, non-denominational opportunity to express your gratitude for the good and glorious things in your life. All that AND turkey! Court, I hope you, Gio, Marcello, and everyone with the good sense and even better taste to read your blog, had a wonderful holiday. I overdid it so much that I literally came back to NYC and had a long-delayed stress test!