EXPLAINING THANKSGIVING TO FOREIGNERS

It’s not just about the Pilgrims and the Native American Indians.  Not just about the turkey or the pumpkin pie or the cranberries.  Unless you grew up with the Thanksgiving ritual, or unless you lived here in the US for a while,  it’s really hard to explain the full meaning or experience of it. It’s stressful. It’s peaceful. It’s giving thanks. It’s being with loved ones. It’s full-blown family arguments. It’s high expectations. It’s low expectations. It’s no expectations.  It’s a lot of things but as a society, in the end, we share a love of the Thanksgiving holiday that is second only to Christmas consistently in polls. Here’s my take on why.

For a quick history of the origin of Thanksgiving, here’s a little video from National Geographic that lays it out in 35 seconds.

But to me, it’s the mass migration — a pilgrimage — that we take no matter how gruelling.  And it’s a holiday with no religion attached. It’s family – in whatever shape or form that comes in. It’s a time to have fun but also to reflect and appreciate your life and those around you.  It’s the simple basics: Love, family, friends, community and thankfulness. And traffic. Happy Thanksgiving, all!

THE TRAVEL: Nearly 51 million people hit the roads the day before Thanksgiving (yesterday), travelling 50 miles or more, with more than 45 million of those in their cars – making it the busiest travel day of the year in the US.  Another estimated 28.5 million people will fly between the weekend before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

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I will try to put this into context: That’s 80 million people travelling around the country. Imagine the WHOLE of the United Kingdom getting up, walking out their doors and driving up and down the M-1, the M-2, the M-3 and the M-25 for a day. Granted the US is far bigger geographically, but most of the population lives on the two coasts. The middle of the country has enormous states that are scarcely populated. For example, Wyoming is about the same size as the U.K. geographically, but has only 585,501 people (2016). And although the population moving around is less than a third of the total population of the US, that movement is concentrated the coasts and the city hubs. Plus, public transport is nearly non-existent. Brits are always confounded by the lack of public transport, but with a country this big, it’s difficult. And then there’s the obsessive American car culture. Try to break Americans of that bad habit.

Air and road travel during Thanksgiving is a nightmare. One Thanksgiving, with the whole family (including 2 dogs, a cat and a goldfish) crammed in the wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon, we were going back home to Connecticut from Washington D.C. Normally a 6-hour drive, we were at a stand-still on the George Washington Bridge in NYC with the other millions trying to get home. The 11-year-old me told my Dad how much I loved that moment: “We’re all part of something bigger, Dad! All these people are doing the same thing as we. How cool! We are in this together! It’s so cosmic!” It was my first realisation of being part of a mass movement.  I was electrified, sitting there staring at the toll booths up ahead that never got closer.  My Dad gripped the steering wheel tighter, knuckles white, while he maintained patience and calm, but after 10 hours on the road, I’m sure he poured himself a hefty Scotch when we finally arrived home.

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NO RELIGION: At ABC News/Nightline, we often bartered our holidays. While you are sitting at home, sipping your lovely cuppa tea, someone is making sure you don’t have a blank screen when you turn on the telly.  The news never stops — newsrooms are staffed day and night — so working with a diverse group helped. “I’ll take your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur if you can take my Christmas?” or “I’ve got you covered for Ramadan and Eid if you wouldn’t mind taking Easter?”

But the one holiday no one wanted to trade was Thanksgiving. This is an all-inclusive, religion-free celebration.  Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, you name it.  Religion being such a contentious issue today in America, this is a very welcome relief.  And ironic, too, given the roots of America’s beginnings by European settlers, eh? But by removing the religious aspect, you take away unnecessary distractions and pressure, allowing all to share in celebrating. [I am setting aside for now the issue of the rightfully bitter Native Americans, who use Thanksgiving as a day of mourning]. At ABC, I ended up taking Thanksgiving because my travel time was a breezy 20 minutes heading up a very empty Wisconsin Avenue on Thanksgiving morning.

NO COMMERCIALISM: Apart from food presented on a typical heaving Thanksgiving dinner table – the turkey, the cranberry sauce, the cornbread, and the pumpkin pie – there is very little to no commercialism attached to the DAY ITSELF.  There are some school plays and pageants, and of course, there is the spectacular Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with all the floats and balloons, but there are no presents to be expected. So there’s no pressure for buying and gifting. It’s just about being at home, hanging out with your peeps.  There are college football games on TV and the advertisements. And of course there’s Black Friday which is the day AFTER Thanksgiving and that’s the most heinous, revolting display of consumerism I’ve ever seen, but besides all that, there’s no…OK, I might have to rephrase that.

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FAMILY: There are so many meanings to ‘family’ these days. This could be your work mates, your core group of friends from university, your community, or your actual family — both as a unit or extended. But Thanksgiving means sharing a meal – a day – with family, in whatever form that takes.

Most people try to go to their family homes for Thanksgiving — where they grew up.  This is what leads to the mass travel. You live in DC but your home is San Francisco.  You go to school in Texas, but home is Boston.  As you can see, the idea of getting “home” ain’t so easy for us.  Even on a really bad day of traffic, you can get from London to Leeds in about 5 hours.  To go from Atlanta to Cleveland would be a 10-hour drive on a good day.

Thanksgiving is always the 4th Thursday in November and the Wednesday before is considered a half-day in many offices and schools.  By also taking off the Friday after Thanksgiving (it’s actually not a holiday in many companies), the holiday becomes a 5-day break, leaving on Wednesday to travel and returning on Sunday.

Over time, it’s morphed.  Americans don’t get very much vacation time (the average is 10 paid vacation days for the American worker), so finding ways to stretch this holiday is key. As the Wednesday-Sunday travel got too popular, another ritual is to take off Monday and Tuesday and make a week out of it, thereby having 9 full days vacation, when only having to take 2.5 days off from work. Even as a university student in Boston, I would arrange my class schedule so that I could leave either Monday night or latest Tuesday to capitalise on as many home-cooked meals as I could.

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My point in all of this is that we will do whatever it takes to be home — with family and friends — in time for Thanksgiving Dinner on Thursday (today).  It’s a ritual that we’ve grown up with, embedded in our collective memories. As our families change and grow or as we move apart (or overseas), the day never loses its importance and meaning.

GIVING THANKS: It’s a time to be grateful for what you have. It’s a time to slow down long enough to appreciate the little things. To be together as a family and be able to look around the dining room table and know that yes, this is where I’m supposed to be. There might be absent places. Or there might be mental stress or financial troubles. There could be sadness and loneliness or illness. There could be loves lost, or anger simmering between couples.  There could be political differences or moral stand-offs.

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But today, at this table, those are all put into perspective.  Today, we celebrate what is good. We look at the glass half full and we see what we have, not what we don’t have.  Of course, we must manage expectations and keep reality front and centre. There is no perfect family. And there is no perfect Thanksgiving. But we remind ourselves of our fortunes — whether it’s as small as being able to pay off a parking ticket or as large as paying off a student loan.  Being thankful for your pet hamster or your beloved family dog. Being grateful that you had the opportunity to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. Remembering loved ones who are no longer with us and sharing their memories with those that never met them.  Hearing a story, telling a story, playing card games, eating too much, going for a run, participating in a touch football game, watching a movie, reading a book, playing charades, volunteering in a local shelter, helping a neighbour, inviting in a friend who has nowhere to go, walking with pride in a Thanksgiving Day parade.  At the end of all that, gathering at Thanksgiving tables all across the US today, people are doing exactly that – giving thanks for all that they have.

And then it’s back to the traffic.

 

 

 

 

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