Thanksgiving is an important holiday for most Americans, but for those living abroad it is especially important. While many American celebrate Thanksgiving with food, family and (American) football, expats are hit with the feelings of homesickness and an acute feeling of what it means to be American. When I first moved to the UK from the US, it was in the summer and I knew very few people – a friend from college, a couple of people I had met traveling, and one or two Brits I had met in my short time in the UK. Soon enough, November rolled around, and the Thanksgiving holiday began to approach. I was relatively young, and I couldn’t justify the expense of flying home (and taking the requisite holiday time) for just 24 hours. So, I had a Thanksgiving celebration in my one-bedroom flat instead. It was me – the only American – and seven others, all British or European, most of whom didn’t know each other. To make it seem more celebratory (and posh…), I told everyone that our party was ‘black tie’, and so we all showed up in rented tuxedoes (for the men) and cocktail dresses (for the women). I tried to cook a turkey, stuffing, and all the side dishes and fit it into my very small kitchen in my very small flat in Notting Hill. We drank too much wine and told stories about our past and hopes for our future. By the end of the evening, my disparate group had created a nucleus of a friendship that would last for years.
We have since held a Thanksgiving feast every year with the same core of non-Americans for 21 years. Over that period, rituals have developed: we have the same recipes (now perfected), the men do all the cooking, it is black tie, old jokes are told again (and again), and we all burn our fingers trying to peel scalding chestnuts for the stuffing. The most important ritual happens prior to sitting down and eating: each of us reflects upon what we are thankful for over the previous year. Each year we invite a new person to the party who is drafted into the work and celebrations just like everyone else. After a few hours of head spinning, most get stuck in the mix: cooking, eating and laughing, and some come back again, making their own friendships. This has introduced me to some amazing people from all walks of life who are now close friends. We have seen the passage of our lives reflected in its mirror: conceptions, births, adoptions, job losses and gains, and more recently deaths, have all been something we have shared. With children and those ‘newbies’ who come back year over year, the group has grown – this year we aim to host almost 30(!) with the same rituals as before – each of us sliding into our now-familiar roles, even if we only see each other once a year. Cousins, parents, brothers and sisters have all been added to the mix of non-Americans that carry on the tradition. I have moved on from Notting Hill (and thankfully the one-bedroom flat), and I am thankful that no matter where we choose to host the celebration, the same group shows up regardless of the different direction our lives have taken.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is about things that bind us together: friendship, food, stories, wine. It is a time to reflect on how lucky we are to have those very things, and it is a time when you are reminded that your friends are your family and your family are your friends, and that some things that are American are universal.