What do I love so much about Thanksgiving? I think it’s that there are no traditions to worry about except hanging out together and cooking and eating with people I care about. There’s something so cosy and nice about being warm together inside while it’s cold outside and the smell of turkey and stuffing and pie and everything else taking its turn in the oven wafts in from the kitchen.
It’s the quintessential family holiday, but it’s also a holiday that I have spent many times away from family. Thanksgiving away from family is a puzzle to be solved. Not celebrating is just sad and unthinkable, but since people, preferably lots of people, are a key ingredient to the holiday, celebrating does involve some planning and inviting, which can be more or less challenging depending on the circumstances. I’ve done my share of inviting, but I’ve also benefitted from some wonderful and thoughtful invitations.
For instance, my first Thanksgiving away from my family of origin happened when I was 17, and just a few months into my first semester at university in Provo, Utah. Flying home to California cost more than fit in my little student budget, especially since I would be flying home for Christmas in less than a month. So my kind roommate, who lived in a little town called Vernal just a three-hour drive away, invited me home to visit her family for Thanksgiving weekend. She had a big, warm Mormon family a lot like mine, and they welcomed me like another family member. Vernal is famous as a paleontological site, so among other things, one of the traditions I participated in that weekend was going to see the city turn on the Christmas light display amidst a park full of dinosaur statues. Another tradition was going out into actual wild, snowy woods to choose a Christmas tree. The feel of crunchy snow under my feet was an exotic novelty to my California self, as was the snowball fight that ensued. The whole thing felt a bit like something out of a 90’s romantic comedy; safe and cosy and old-fashioned.
There’s nothing that makes you feel like a grown-up quite like hosting your first Thanksgiving. The year after Axa was born, we stayed at home in Provo with our little family for Thanksgiving. Since we were the old, married ones, we invited my brother and sister to Thanksgiving dinner. My 18-year-old sister arrived just in time to stop us putting the turkey in the oven naked, with no seasonings. Upon closer inspection, it also became apparent that we had left the bag of giblets to carmelise into molten plastic and offal in one of the mysterious cavities.
We did get better at cooking. In fact, I believe the culinary height of our Thanksgiving happened in Florida. I cooked for three days and was so busy planning the menu I didn’t even think to invite anyone over. So it was just the four of us and a giant Thanksgiving feast that we ate for days. The food was great, and I still use some of the recipes, but it was a little too much work. And it felt a bit lonely eating it by ourselves.
A couple of years later we were still in Florida and had just stopped attending the Mormon Church. I was working full time for the first time since before kids, and contemplating caving and buying a roast chicken for Thanksgiving because I just couldn’t face the cooking. In fact, I may have let slip my pathetic, sad Thanksgiving plan on my blog, because we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner by the new Mormon Stake President and his family. We were still smarting from the emotional drama that is extracting oneself from a religion that touches every aspect of life, and thought about not going. But we went, and it was wonderful, and I felt especially at home because there was singing afterwards, which would totally happen at a Bringhurst Thanksgiving.
This year marks our fourth Thanksgiving in Amsterdam. When you live abroad, Thanksgiving is just another Thursday. So you have a choice between a restaurant dinner on Thanksgiving after work or a traditional cook-all-day Thanksgiving on Saturday. We hosted our first Amsterdam Thanksgiving at our house, back when our house could fit fifteen people in it and our oven could fit a turkey. We sang Christmas carols afterwards, and for a little while it felt like home, even though we were so new. All the people we invited that year are now living in different countries.
Two years ago we were invited to an even bigger expat Thanksgiving at someone else’s house. A lot of those people have moved away now too. Last year we invited an American friend to the Amsterdam Hard Rock Café’s Thanksgiving dinner. The company was good, but the food was so incredibly bad it has probably put me off restaurant turkey dinners forever. This year we decided that the company was more important than the turkey, and invited a family we’ve known since we moved to Amsterdam to a sort-of American-style grill place that while it doesn’t serve turkey does serve great food. We talked a little bit of politics and a little bit of sports, and a lot of other stuff, and it was a warm, wonderful, although unorthodox Thanksgiving dinner.
And then, miracle of miracles, we were also invited to a Saturday Thanksgiving with friends in Utrecht. I’ve never had two Thanksgivings in one year. But why wouldn’t I want to double up on my favourite holiday? Last night was everything Thanksgiving should be: great food, kids of all ages, and homey atmosphere.
Due to distance and logistics, I don’t anticipate that we will spend many if any Thanksgivings with family in the foreseeable future. But spending it this way with friends from far and near does a pretty good job of filling up that Thanksgiving-shaped hole in my heart. Here’s to many more Thanksgivings like these!