Expatriate Thanksgiving

By Mari Wallace

When I close my eyes and say the word “Thanksgiving” my mind instantly conjures up that iconic Norman Rockwell painting with the happy family gathered around the festive table as the perfectly browned turkey is being presented. It is such a welcoming image – so much so that I want nothing more than to be part of that family, to be at that table, amid those smiling faces.

Celebrating Thanksgiving, especially for someone like me, who lives in another country, has always brought me back to my American heritage.

The first time I spent Thanksgiving away from home was when I was studying at Nottingham University in England, on my “junior year abroad.” My newly-acquired English boyfriend, thinking Thanksgiving was a variation of Christmas, actually gave me a present! As it was the perfume I was using at the time, I happily accepted the gift.

And this brings me to one of the reasons why I love Thanksgiving. It is, quintessentially, a wonderful excuse to have a fabulous feast with family – just as portrayed by Rockwell. There’s none of the stress of getting those Christmas cards out on time, finding the right present for each person on the list without going too much over budget, lining up at the post office to mail the packages. By the time the Christmas dinner comes around, I’m exhausted! With Thanksgiving, the only gift-giving is the gift of family. As I like to cook, the “burden” of preparing the feast is no burden whatsoever but a joy to plan and execute, knowing how appreciative the participants will be. Thanksgiving is quite simply eating wonderful food with the people you love. And what could be better than that?

In my early days as an ex-pat living in London, whenever the fourth Thursday in November drew near, my American friends and I would always seek each other out. We simply needed to celebrate Thanksgiving together. And because we were living abroad, we felt free to experiment with variations of the traditional meal, resulting in a perfect mix of patriotism and individuality. “Do we have to have pumpkin pie” Janet asked when our little group sat down to plan.

“Of course not!” came the answer. So what did we have instead? Pecan pie!

“And can we do away with cranberry sauce? Far too gloopy for my taste,” said Susan, who recommended a relish made with oranges and fresh cranberries which she was happy to make.

“What about sweet potatoes” I asked. “I hate that yucky marshmallow topping.” So a compromise was reached there, too. The basics stayed the same, with variations on stuffing depending upon whose turn it was to provide this part of the meal. The guys in our little group, who didn’t cook, made sure we had lovely wine to accompany the turkey.

The venue was always Susan’s centrally-located apartment. She bought the turkey (we all contributed to the cost) and the rest of us brought the trimmings. I remember with particular fondness one Thanksgiving dinner where we all consumed so much that we just could not contemplate the dessert before us, Janet’s beautiful pecan pie. Full of guilt, we showered her with compliments on her achievement but no one moved to cut a slice. Susan came to the rescue. “Come on, everyone,” she instructed. “Put on your coats and follow me.” She then marched us across Kensington Gardens and back – probably two miles in total. On our return, we were more than ready to appreciate the pie, garnished with big scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Because Thanksgiving is not a public holiday here in the “Mother Country,” we would always have our celebration on the weekend. We’d each invite an English friend to join us. These friends were fascinated by the history of Thanksgiving – commemorating that very first feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Native Americans who’d helped them to survive, taught them what to plant in the new climate. We had to correct our friends’ pronunciation of Thanksgiving. The emphasis for us Americans is on the word “giving.” For some reason, the Brits put the emphasis on the “thanks” part. Not that it really mattered. To my thinking, both words, “thanks” and “giving,” are of equal importance.

Although my fellow Americans and I frequently socialized with each other during the year – meeting up at dinner parties, concerts, movies and so on – it was Thanksgiving that brought us all together as an American community, and caused us to reflect on the importance of family, especially as we were so many miles away from parents or siblings. We created our own expat family and were thankful to have found each other on an occasion that reminded us of our origins.

A tradition we initiated as part of our celebration was for each of us in turn to say what we were thankful for. Besides the predictable ones such as good health and good friends, there were more offbeat contributions such as “I’m grateful that the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl,” or “I’m thankful that my sister’s IVF has worked,” or even “I’m thankful we’re not having pumpkin pie this year.”

My days as a “singleton” in London are long since over. But I continue to celebrate Thanksgiving – now with my Anglo-American children. I’ve instilled in them a respect for their American heritage, and a love for and appreciation of family gatherings. As I see it, that’s what Thanksgiving is all about.

About this writer

  • Mari Wallace

    Mari Wallace

    worked in publishing in New York City, then moved to London, work permit in hand. Her features have been published in many U.K. magazines – and she recently had a story in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog (April 2019).

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