With the holiday behind us, I got my usual load of questions about Thanksgiving. What is it, why is it such a big deal, and what does it look like?
To give you an idea of what it feels like to an outsider, I’ll tell you the story of my first Thanksgiving after moving to America. There was one before that, but it was a coincidental Thanksgiving while vacationing in Hawaii, so that doesn’t really count.
My first real Thanksgiving was in Portland, OR. I had moved in June, so I was still very fresh to American culture. Thanksgiving meant little more to me that a holiday in the middle of the week, and strangely it seemed that everybody in the office had stopped working for real on Wednesday. Many would not show up on Friday, which is something I knew very well from Italy, where it is called ponte, or “bridge” (from holiday to weekend).
On the day itself, I had already heard the supermarkets were going to close early (actually, at all, since most of them are always open). I went to one and decided to get a frozen dinner. And since it was Thanksgiving, I would honor the tradition of my new home country by eating a frozen turkey dinner. They came with mashed potatoes and side of veggies (which I still pronounced “vegghies”).
As I got to the checkstand, there was a middle-aged lady waiting for me. Strangely, the whole place was eerily empty, and it was barely 2p.
In any case, the belt sent my frozen dinner her way. She scanned it, looked at it absent-mindedly, then looked again. She looked at me. She looked at the box. She looked at me again. She got this incredibly sad look on her face. Then a tear came out of the corner of one eye. Then she cried, “Oh, my God! You have nowhere to go for Thanksgiving!”
Well, so it was not my first real Thanksgiving. That would come the year after. But this anecdote illustrates an important point: Thanksgiving is such a big deal in America that Americans can’t even fathom it could be entirely unimportant to anyone outside the country. It’s just the President of Holidays, for lack of imperial variant.
What Are Its Origins?
You can read the Wikipedia entry, it does a great job at explaining it. I’ll summarize as follows: Apparently, the first English colony in the States was incredibly ill-equipped. They didn’t know what the weather was going to be like, they didn’t know who surrounded them, they didn’t know anything. So they ran out of food in the middle of winter. They started starving, and horrible stories were told. Finally, the local Native Americans (back then still called Indians) took pity and gave these settlers food.
The settlers survived, more came, the Indians were sent to reservations to die (most of them, at least), and 300 years later or so America speaks English. And the holiday the celebrate the start of this is Thanksgiving. Which is nominally the holiday where the settlers (called pilgrims, despite the fact that there was no pilgrimage site) gave thanks to the Native Americans who had saved their ass.
What Are the Most Important Traditions?
Since food was the thing one was thankful then, Thanksgiving dinner is the center of the holiday. This particular dinner is atypical in that it is not served at regular dinner time, but in the afternoon. Most families will probably settle somewhere between 2 and 4 PM.
A typical American family will gather as many people as possible around the table. Family is first, but sometimes unmarried spouses are invited (which is typically a big deal), and sometimes someone takes pity on a friend or acquaintance or perfect stranger and invites them along (in which case it’s awkward, but not a big deal).
The sheer amounts of food served are scary. The dinner devolves into a frenzy of passing around dishes, and a typical conversation that doesn’t need to be rehearsed, because it’s stayed basically the same since 1645 (I made up the year). “Oh, this turkey is so moist?” “What’s the secret ingredient in the stuffing?” “You have to give me the recipe for this casserole, it’s delicious!”
After dinner, there is lots of tiredness and TV watching. The men usually watch one of the many football games (or some other sport). The women… I don’t really know. What do the women do after Thanksgiving dinner? I really need to ask.
What Are Typical Dishes?
The centerpiece of most Thanksgiving dinner tables is the turkey. That’s usually a huge bird, 16 lbs or more. It takes an inordinate amount of time to bake that thing in an oven, which requires a lot of planning in the land of frozen dinners and granola bars.
The turkey is usually served with stuffing or dressing. That’s the same thing, but the stuffing technically has to be stuffed in the torso of the bird during baking (which is called cooking, despite being in an oven), while the dressing is just put beside it (reducing cooking/baking time).
Another staple is mashed potatoes. In America, unlike in Europe, potatoes are usually mashed with the skins. Trust me, the rest of the world can learn something from America, because those potato skins can be absolutely delicious. That’s particularly true if the potatoes were baked instead of being boiled.
There are a host of side dishes. Typically there will be a green bean casserole with caramelized onions. That one I usually find disgusting and I don’t know why it is served, since neither green beans nor onions are seasonal to the Fall.
Another common side dish is cranberry sauce/cranberry relish. The area in Germany where my family comes from loves relish with meats, as well, so I was not particularly surprised. Personally, I prefer mustard on my turkey, but I’ll follow tradition if so desired.
In the category of definitely weird we have the sweet potatoes/yams with marshmallows. Marshmallows are essentially wet and spongy meringues. Placing them on sweet potatoes and serving them with turkey and mashed (white or yellow) potatoes is on the odd side. Again, it’s tradition, so at the very least prepare yourselves.
There are typically bread rolls (the usual spongy stuff, unless the host decides on flaky croissants), a soup or two, salads, and more ad lib.
Some families don’t eat turkey, or serve the turkey alongside baked ham. Vegetarian families sometimes eat tofu shaped like turkey, which frankly is not the best thing ever.
Desserts typically include a pumpkin pie (meh) and a pecan pie (yum!). Pies can be eaten a la mode, which is French for “according to fashion,” but is American for “with (vanilla) ice cream.”
The tradition has favored family dinners. Everybody sits at the table, the food is on the table, and is passed from guest to guest. Nowadays, many families are switching to a buffet system, where you go and pick the food you want from a cart or table.
Drinks usually involve tons of alcohol (strangely, wine seems to be very common).
I should also mention that some families gather, but do not eat the traditional dinner. Sometimes they are celebrating their heritage (Latino families, particularly), or a recent trip, or they are just bored with the same old, same old.
You will also find tons of “leftover” dishes after Thanksgiving. Traditionally, the turkey is made into sandwiches (with stuffing and cranberries), and you will find Thanksgiving leftover sandwiches in stores (for instance at Starbucks).
Cultural Influences of Thanksgiving
The mechanics of Thanksgiving are simple. The influence of the holiday on America is deep.
First of all, American families are frequently splintered. That’s particularly true for the middle class, which still forms the majority of the country. Getting all the family together for the holiday means having people cross the country to see relatives they haven’t seen in a year (since last Thanksgiving). In essence, Thanksgiving is a rite of purgation, meant to establish tribal affiliation in defiance of a whole year of tribal neglect.
Accordingly, everybody loves complaining about how horrible Thanksgiving travel has become. It’s not meant to be a good experience, because you want to show what sacrifices you are willing to make to be with your family. Also, you want to make sure everybody knows that you couldn’t possibly make it out more often.
Second, the need to travel long distance has created an understanding that Thanksgiving shuts down offices for pretty much the entire week. Monday and Tusday may still be normal working days, but people are already focusing on the holiday. Come Wednesday, normal working hours are impossible, as people leave for the airport (or for their car, if they are lucky). When you go to work on the Friday, you typically encounter a ghost town.
You won’t get much done that week, I guarantee you. Even if you could, nobody else would be there to see the work you are doing.
The next item on the parade of cultural consequences is the proximity to Christmas, which transforms the last month of the year into a sort of dead zone. Projects mysteriously languish for a month; sales that seemed assured are put on hold; expenses that seemed direly needed the week before now have to take a back seat to buying presents.
In many respects, the proximity of Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday in November) and Christmas (25th of December) is a tragedy. The holidays are both celebrated with a family gathering; the foods traditionally served are the same; the spirit of Thanksgiving is of family and giving thanks, while the spirit of Christmas is of family and being generous and charitable (what with all the gifts). The two holidays are very similar in people’s mind – so similar, indeed, that you could easily merge them, if you wanted.
Imagery of Thanksgiving
When it comes to Thanksgiving cards and paraphernalia, the turkey rules. The sound the animal makes in English is, “gobble, gobble,” so you will see a lot of that, too. There is also a children’s drawing, placing the hand on a piece of paper and tracing it, then turning the thumb into the head (of the turkey) and the other fingers into the feathers.
There is also a lot of pilgrims and Indians imagery present. The Indians are usually red-skinned and bear long black hair with a feather. The pilgrims are instantly recognizable by their black clothes, strange hat, and belt buckles. (Apparently both anachronisms.)
Thanksgiving and the entire cultural paradigm are also prominently featured in the media, especially TV. Many TV shows have a Thanksgiving special, the most famous of which may be the Charlie Brown / Peanuts version. It is notable in that it ends up not being a real Thanksgiving dinner, with pretzels and pizza instead of turkey and cranberry sauce.
I found most notable the yearly specials of the show, Friends. That’s because Friends is a show about a made-up family, and reconciling the “real” families to which the cast members belong with their only real family-of-friends is a centerpiece of the action. Sometimes they celebrate Thanksgiving as friends and meet new people, and sometimes they travel out of New York City, with all the disasters that people that never leave New York City imagine befall people that actually do try to leave.
Strangely, despite crowding the theaters with movie-goers, Thanksgiving hasn’t really launched a themed-movie industry like Valentine’s Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, or Christmas. I would call it an untapped resource.
What Is It To You?
If you come to America on Thanksgiving, be prepared! Virtually everything will be closed or will close early – including almost everything that advertises as open 24/7! To you, of course, Thanksgiving is just a Thursday, so you have to make a conscious effort to make sure you have all the things you need before the stores close.
Also, remember that Americans have to buy those gobs of food they will throw away on Friday. That means that the week leading up to Thanksgiving is a major nightmare in food stores. Better get your shopping done ahead of time.
Finally, remember that millions of Americans will travel back in a ritual that reminds one invariably of salmons swimming upstream to spawn their eggs. Make absolutely sure you do not travel on the day before Thanksgiving, or early on Thanksgiving day. The same is true for the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
And since Americans don’t really have anything to do on the day after Thanksgiving, but they are still stuck with family, they go to the mall. Malls are smart and always have smashing sales on that Friday (called Black Friday). So, unless you want to trampled on, don’t go to the mall!
(Of course, the best day for travel is late Thanksgiving day, and the best deals are really available on Black Friday, so be careful with my advice!)
In the Event You Are Invited
Now, remember the part where people invite acquaintances and strangers out of pity. For Americans, being invited is a wonderful thing, because they really would feel terrible about not having anywhere to go on Thanksgiving day. To you, of course, it sounds just like any old invitation to dinner and you may be inclined to say yes, spontaneously. I mean, it’s free food, right?
First thing: Americans fully expect you to lie about your plans. If someone asks what you are doing for Thanksgiving, they usually just want to hear that you are going with family/friends/church, etc. They don’t want to hear that you are not doing anything, because then they are obligated to invite you. Which secretly they don’t want. So decline.
Also, when you decline, you have to have a great reason. For instance, you could say you are traveling to the Grand Canyon, because there will be nobody else. In no case should you say you are doing something charitable, because that’s apparently the American way of saying, “I have nowhere to go! Please invite me!”
Even if you decided to serve food at the homeless shelter because the hot girl from church will do that, don’t tell anyone. When they’ll invariably invite you and you’ll invariably decline, they will be very offended.
Next, if you actually decide to go, by all means make sure you have watched some TV show about Thanksgiving. The rituals will be strange to you, but familiar to everybody else. Not knowing what’s going on will not count in your favor, even if you said that you have never had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
If you absolutely must go and absolutely have no time to prepare (other than reading this post), make sure of the following:
- Show up on time, but don’t be too punctual; I found that showing up 15 minutes late and sending a message that you are going to be late by that much is usually best. Your host will signal back when they really want you to be there.
- Bring a gift for the Lady of the House. Flowers are particularly appropriate, especially fall-themed bouquets. Food is less appropriate (because it needs to be served, which could discombobulate the dinner plans). Alcohol may work, but don’t count on it.
- Praise. When you get into the house, praise the decor and size. When you meet the family, praise their cohesion and the effort they made to come together. When the food arrives, praise it like it’s the only food worth eating in the world!
- Don’t talk about controversial subjects. In your case, comparisons of America with anything else are absolutely inappropriate, unless you sentence starts with “America is so much better than…”
- Try to blend in. Don’t eat a lot more than other people, even though you may be tempted, and your host may seem happy about it. Don’t eat less than other people. If you see others file for second servings, go for second servings. If nobody goes for a third, don’t go for a third.
- Come prepared with an excuse, and leave early; this is a family party, and you are just a guest. Don’t impose by overstaying your welcome, but make sure your host doesn’t get the impression you didn’t like it. As a rule of thumb, I would say that staying for the entire dinner is mandatory, and then you should leave during the TV watching with a plausible excuse.
- Talk about the event after Thanksgiving. Make clear how much you loved being invited, and be very open about it. While to you it was a simple invitation to dinner, your host will probably want recognition for inviting a “stranger”