Celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving is one of the quintessentially American holidays. It is an example of a harvest festival, and was originally a day of religious observance. Before what we typically think of as the first Thanksgiving in 1621, several other celebratory feasts for giving thanks to God occurred among European settlers in North America.
In ideals, it’s about family, coming together, food, and of course giving thanks. It’s something I grew up with, running around the house and smelling the turkey, sharing what I’m grateful for, and learning the (very sugar-coated) primary school tales of the first Thanksgiving.
The below, is a personal account from Cyprus, one of our current interns from the USA about the Thanksgiving she has memories of growing up with and one, that this year, she will miss out on thanks to her internship.
To my childhood self, there was a cruel unspoken tradition that the gap between lunch and Thanksgiving dinner was inanely longer than usual. It was like all day, you were forced to watch a sinful amount of glorious food being cooked – and there was seldom but a sad sandwich to snack on. The turkey and the stuffing are cooking in the oven, filling Grandma’s house with a smell that makes your mouth water. The gravy and cranberry juice are covered in the fridge, the bread rolls are not yet heated and the salad isn’t tossed until right before dinner. As a young and impatient child, the entire day seemed manufactured by adults solely for the purpose of making me hungry.
The day drags on until telltale signs of dinner make their appearance. Because I don’t cook, I’m asked to set the table: to lay out the plates, forks, knives, candlesticks, placemats, Grandma’s fancy napkins (folded into decorative napkin holders, which are different for every holiday). Finally, every last side dish and toppling gravy boat is set down. Despite the food being ready, for some reason one of the adults always dilly-dallies to their seat. Eventually everyone is at the table. We each say what we’re thankful for (how sentimental, long-lasting, or religious this is varies from family to family). And then, at last, after years – the feast begins.
It starts with the clink and clatter of passing around greens, salads, sides; then usually the “head of the household” offers to carve the turkey. Exclamations of “dark meat!”, “white meat!” are yelled out, and the turkey carver portions out the breast, the legs, the wings.
And then. . .
Silence. Some clinks, some clatter, but all conversation is replaced by the voracious chewing of a very hungry family that has finally filled their plates with food. This initial silence, punctuated by the occasional moan and some head nodding affirmations, usually lasts several minutes. During this, everyone attends to their preferred method of digging in.
My favourite thing is to get a little bit of everything and eat it all in one ludicrous bite. (My father will laugh, my grandmother will shake her head.) Mashed potatoes, turkey, stuffing, and gravy layered on a bread roll is and always will be the perfect combo. This is the tried and true method:
Cut open a roll, and put the bed of mashed potatoes on first to make a concrete foundation. Then, fork the pieces of turkey into the mash, add a layer of stuffing, and pour a dollop of steaming gravy over the whole thing. Take previously mentioned ludicrous bite. Unleash the wild animal you are when you’re seven years old and can still pretend you have a fuzzy concept of table manners.
Dessert is Pumpkin Pie slathered in whipped cream. And the next week is all leftovers – any American will tell you that Thanksgiving leftovers are almost as integral to the holiday as the dinner itself. With all the food that is prepared, the point isn’t to actually finish everything on Thanksgiving day. Turkey, stuffing, & cranberry sauce sandwiches (toasties?) are a must. More creative types will make turkey soup, and school lunch boxes for days are packed with stuffing, sweet potatoes and cooked greens. The day of, it can certainly seem like a whole lot of waiting. But my goodness it is worth it. Whilst I celebrate this November 22nd in the Southern Hemisphere, my heart is in California, setting down the silverware.
A Final Note from the Author:
Like many Americans, as I grow older I continue to learn more about its controversial origins, and the true complexities of what Thanksgiving means un-extracted from its history of colonisation. The sentiments of togetherness and peacemaking are worthy ideals, but it’s important to know why some Americans don’t celebrate. For me and many, this tradition is family, love, and expressing what you’re grateful for. However, it isn’t for everyone. I say - educate yourself, know your history, and cherish your loved ones.