Family are gathered, pies are baked, wine will soon flow, football is queued, and the bird is already releasing heavenly, succulent smells that will quickly infiltrate every corner of the house. By the end of the day, tummies will be stuffed, the room will be full of laughter and games, and eventually, we’ll all pass out in a food coma before our first holiday movie of the year.
Does this sound like your home on Thanksgiving Day?
For us, Thanksgiving has always been about family, food, and celebration. And while millions of Americans will be traveling home this holiday season, this will be our first abroad. So how do we celebrate when so far from home? And how has travel changed this American tradition for us?
Many Americans have some pretty strong traditions when it comes to food for Thanksgiving. Turkey? Check. Mashed potatoes? Check. Pumpkin pie? Double check!
As a kid
Growing up, our table always included stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, yams, pumpkin pie, a lime jello (that we’ve always called “green salad”), cranberry sauce, and of course the bird with gravy. Give or take a few veggies. All made from scratch. This evolved over the years, adding turnips or rolls. And it seemed we’d add a new pie to the array with each passing year: apple, pecan, chocolate cream, cherry…
It was undoubtedly a feast, but that worked for a family of six.
As we grew up and moved away from home, this didn’t really change, as we’d all still come together for the holidays. We only adjusted who cooked each dish.
Making our own Thanksgiving
It wasn’t until Aaron and I moved out of state that we had to finally decide between Thanksgiving or Christmas with my family (because we couldn’t afford to fly home for both). The latter won out, and we were forced to adapt Thanksgiving to be our own.
Primarily, we simply couldn’t cook that much food for just two people. We kept the musts (stuffing, pumpkin pie, green salad, bird, gravy), and we rotated between the other ancillary side dishes. We still had leftovers for weeks.
We also had to get super creative with our small apartment kitchen; we couldn’t cook everything in the oven at the same time. So the stuffing moved to the crockpot, the cranberry sauce simmered on the stovetop, and the pie went into the toaster oven (yes, it fit!).
I mostly used my family’s recipes, though I adapted them to our local ingredients and later, our food allergies (I’ve since perfected an amazing vegan, gluten-free, made-from-a-legit-roasted-sugar-pumpkin pumpkin pie!). But as we began to travel and grew an affinity for other cultures, we decided to branch out and try to incorporate other things.
A Japanese Thanksgiving
Fascinated with the Japanese culture, we experimented with attempting a Thanksgiving feast with a bit of Nihon flair. What does that look like?
This was our lineup:
- Chestnut Rice (kurigohan)
- Spicy Yam Soup
- Garlic Mashed Potatoes (my mother’s)
- Stuffing (my crockpot modification of my mother’s recipe)
- Ginger Carrot Salad
- Green Bean Salad (my sister’s)
- Turkey (cooked breastside-down – trust me!)
- Giblet Gravy (don’t throw away the giblets – they’re good for you and so delicious!!)
- Homemade Cranberry Sauce (our personal take on a classic)
- Pumpkin Pie
- accompanied with Citrus Wassail and green tea
This is clearly more American than Japanese (no fish!), but it was a fun challenge to see which dishes we could find to fit both.
This was probably the most difficult part, as we didn’t have any family close by to share the holiday. We got one year of Thanksgiving with Aaron’s mother before she passed, but she was the last of his family in the area.
We had a few years to ourselves, but it wasn’t quite the same.. and it was a challenge to somehow differentiate the event from any other evening or special occasion. One thing was for certain, however: we’d always called home.
Subsequent years, we really embraced the tradition of Friendsgiving (Thanksgiving with friends). This sometimes meant we’d have to move the feast to Friday to accommodate schedules, but we didn’t mind if we got to share the holiday with others.
The year before we went to Japan, I had a Japanese language partner during my fall school term. I thought, what’s more American than showing her what a real U.S. Thanksgiving is like? So we invited her, and I’m so happy she accepted. We ended up also having a couple of our friends over, and they brought onigiri to add to the feast. We ate lots of food, played games, watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and gave a Japanese native a taste of American tradition. It was a truly rewarding experience.
Last year, my family moved to the Pacific Northwest, and I was finally able to celebrate with them once more. They invited some of their new neighbors, and there was so. much. food. (Seriously, we had at least seven pies – three of which were pumpkin.)
Over the years, we’ve learned that the most important part of any holiday is the people you spend it with. These are the people who help form the traditions that wind up as memories.
Aside from food, there are rituals and customs we uphold on this day of giving thanks.
First, the day is often used as our official date when we can start decorating for Christmas (please don’t decorate before Halloween!). If the weather’s good, we’ll hang the lights outside. We’ll set up the Christmas village and wrap the banisters in garland. And if we’re really ambitious, we’ll go get the Christmas tree (though that usually comes later so the tree still has some needles come Christmas).
Once the work is done, we obviously eat far too much. Aside from the feast, proper, we also munch on snacks throughout the day. This is more a tradition with my parents than when we’re on our own, but I love it all the same. Dips and spreads, veggie sticks, chips, crackers, mini sausages, cheeses, salads, meatballs… if it’s finger food or could be eaten off a toothpick, it’s likely on the table.
We sit down to “dinner” somewhere around 3pm (really, whenever the bird’s done), but we don’t dig in until everyone has had a chance to say something for which they’re thankful. We raise a toast, and we eat!
Once the table is cleared, out come the games! Accompanied by more wine, we play Cards Against Humanity, Pictophone, Drawful, or some other raucous game consisting of some less-than-appropriate phrases and plenty of boisterous laughter. We talk and connect, laugh, and enjoy each other’s company.
And finally, when we’ve worn ourselves out, we zone out in front of a holiday movie – Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, Polar Express, The Santa Clause, or something equally festive. We have a bit of pie (good luck choosing which flavor!) and call it a night.
I love every moment of it, and I miss when I can’t spend the time with my family.
Thanksgiving is obviously an American holiday. However, there are some countries who celebrate something similar (albeit with different origins).
There is a Japanese Labor Thanksgiving Day, celebrated every year on November 23rd, with roots in an agricultural harvest festival. Like Americans, they give thanks on this day, but their gratitude is directed at laborers and a year’s work well done. And they don’t eat themselves into oblivion nationwide; they save that for New Year’s.
Germans observe Erntedankfest in October, in addition to the more well-known Oktoberfest, marked by parades, parties, and fireworks.
Canadians also celebrate their own Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October to give thanks for the annual harvest. Theirs is quite similar to the American holiday, including a day of feasting on many of the same traditional foods (the turkey was actually adopted from the American holiday).
Vietnam and China celebrate a harvest Thanksgiving, dictated by the lunar calendar and celebrated during the full moon (thus the preference for Chinese “moon cakes” over pumpkin pie). And even Liberia (originally founded by freed American slaves) celebrates the holiday with the more plentiful chicken as the main course.
Check out more on other countries’ Thanksgivings here!
While we’re traveling, traditions will obviously be quite different. We aren’t going to decorate an Airbnb that we’ll vacate in a few days, and we certainly aren’t going to buy a Christmas tree.
We’re also on a tight budget, so while we love food, we are very unlikely to cook up a large feast – especially when we can’t really be carting (or even storing) a bunch of leftovers.
But we could play games with some fellow travelers at a hostel or settle into a holiday movie with a bit of local pie and some mulled wine.
What we would love most is to experience some local traditions, but this could prove difficult without the people to share them.
This year, we’ll be spending Thanksgiving with a couchsurfer in Dubrovnik, Croatia. While we know they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving (though Croatia does have a “Homeland Thanksgiving Day” in August that is more their Independence Day), perhaps they’ll let us fire up some turkey and play some games with them. At least we know we won’t be alone for the holiday.
Out of curiosity, I asked some longterm traveling Americans what they do for the holiday. The responses ranged from completely leaving the holiday behind to attempting to find local restaurants that serve turkey. Some make sure their Airbnb has an oven so they can cook something traditional; others meet up with their local expat community for burgers and a football stream. One was somewhat shamed into abandoning it when residents asked why the big deal, and another astounded the locals with the concept of cranberry sauce. Most agreed that food and calls back home to family were traditions that would persist no matter their location.
I often wonder what traditions I would maintain if we had a permanent residence overseas, and which of the locals’ I would happily adopt. What do American immigrants keep and assimilate, themselves? All in all, I love the blending of cultures. So no matter what kind of Thanksgiving you celebrate, I hope it is filled with love, laughter, and fun!
Have you ever spent Thanksgiving away from home? How did you celebrate? Did you move to America later in life? Which traditions surrounding Thanksgiving did you adopt as your own?
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