Celebrating Thanksgiving Abroad – Travel’s Influence on Our Traditions

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 typically travel home for the holiday season, we’ve experienced the festivities abroad.  So how do we celebrate when so far from home?  And how has travel changed this American tradition for us?

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015


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.  I 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.

I 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:

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 phoned 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 invited 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.


A few years ago, 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 – including three 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. And the best part: family comes in all shapes and sizes, whether it’s just Aaron and me, or a group of friends, or some fellow travelers, or a house busting with people.


Aside from food, there are rituals and customs we uphold on this day of giving thanks.

The Work


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).

The Feast

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!

The Fun

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.

Other countries

Thanksgiving is obviously an American holiday.  However, there are some countries who celebrate something similar (albeit with different origins).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

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 (they actually adopted turkey 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!

Thanksgiving Abroad


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 (even if we could find one!).

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 love most is experiencing some local traditions, but this sometimes proves difficult without the people to share them.

Thansgiving in Dubrovnik

During our world trip, we spent Thanksgiving with a couchsurfer in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  They don’t celebrate Thanksgiving (though Croatia does have a “Homeland Thanksgiving Day” in August that is more like their Independence Day), but she just happened to be teaching her kids (she’s a teacher at the local school) about the American holiday.

She was absolutely delighted to learn how I make pumpkin pie. Now, we couldn’t actually find a pumpkin, so we used a butternut squash instead… close enough, right? Improvisation!! But it came out really tasty! And our host couldn’t get over the cute little pumpkin I like to put on top from leftover crust dough. She even replicated the recipe for her students, and they loved it!

There was no turkey that, but least we weren’t alone for the holiday. And we came away with new memories in sharing it with someone else.

Other travelers


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?

Psst… do you love reading about holidays during travel?  You might also enjoy these:

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Contrary to popular belief, Thanksgiving isn't just celebrated by Americans! Most commonly taking form as a harvest festival, thanks are given this time of year all around the world! How can celebrate the holiday while traveling, and how has travel impacted your festive traditions? Click to read what we've experienced! | BIG tiny World Travel | #bigtinyworld #holidaysabroad #thanksgiving #traveltraditions #holidaysContrary to popular belief, Thanksgiving isn't just celebrated by Americans! Most commonly taking form as a harvest festival, thanks are given this time of year all around the world! How can celebrate the holiday while traveling, and how has travel impacted your festive traditions? Click to read what we've experienced! | BIG tiny World Travel | #bigtinyworld #holidaysabroad #thanksgiving #traveltraditions #holidays

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4 thoughts on “Celebrating Thanksgiving Abroad – Travel’s Influence on Our Traditions

  1. First, your cats are adorable. Second, I think you just described the quintessential Thanksgiving celebration. Third, I teach ESL to elementary students here in America and many of them both keep their native holidays and traditions (such as Hmong New Year) but also embrace, say, turkey at Thanksgiving. One of my students was a newcomer from Vietnam last year. She so desperately wanted to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, but her skeptical father wouldn’t let her. This year, though, he relented.
    Great post and Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Haha! Well, first, only two of the cats are ours.. the one in the Santa capelet actually belongs to our good friends – with whom we spent Thanksgiving that year. And I’m happy to hear our traditions echo others’, as I love every moment of it, and I think everyone should be fortunate enough to have that much fun every year! I find it so interesting to talk to others around the world about various holiday rituals. We were thrilled to see people (even adults) in costume in Bologna for Halloween, after being told no one celebrates it there. I think with the globalization of so many cultures through the internet and increased travel, others latch on to the enjoyable traditions of other countries and mold them into their own (just like Dia de Los Muertos in the States or KFC feasts for Christmas in Japan :)).
      Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours as well!

  2. Great post. Interesting to see how you’ve continually had to adapt dependent on where and who has been around. I hope you enjoyed your Croatian Thanksgiving. I got to experience my first this year and it was a success1 Hopefully I’ll make it back to the US next year for a repeat 🙂

    1. Thank you, Jason! We had a lovely Croatian Thanksgiving! Our host was super thrilled to make a pie with us, and she even made one, herself, for her students a week later. She was tickled by the whole process, and I think that was more enjoyable than the actual food! 😀

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