Wednesday, 26 November 2014


I grew up in a family that was quite synchretic in its attitude to traditions. My mother is French, but from Alsace, which celebrates Christmas in the Germanic style (on the 24th of December in the evening, with cured meats, choral music, and white wine). My father is English, which means church on Christmas morning, stockings, roast goose, plum pudding and plenty of brandy. We lived in Belgium for four years, and there picked up yet another Christmas variant (December 6th, St Nicolas, chocolate coins in slippers laid out by the fire). And we did Hallowe'en long before it was widely observed in the UK, I now realise, because my mother's neighbour in West London when my brother and sister were young was an American women with two young daughters. Thus, my family collects holiday traditions, and as a rule, sticks to them.
Thanksgiving is not a holiday in the United Kingdom or in France. This is obvious if you know its history, but the traditions we are raised with seem so natural to us that I have more than once had to explain this to Americans. In much the same way, I am still not used to not having a four day weekend for Easter (in England, both Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays). Yet as I have now been in the US for six years, and have a American fiance, Thanksgiving is very much part of my own branch of the family's holiday traditions. In the years I have been here, I have had the good fortune to enjoy many different thanksgivings varieties: a gathering of international waifs and strays in a small apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan, in a room barely big enough to hold us all was my first. The next year, it was a huge clan of Connecticut Jewish Americans in an old house outside Phili (hosted by that same former American neighbour who'd introduced our family to Hallowe'en).  For the past few years, it's been at my soon-to-be-in-laws house outside DC, where they make two turkeys (one roasted, one smoked). We'll be headed out there shortly. And I'll be spending next week in the gym.
Thanksgiving is an oddity in the American calendar. A day held holy, where everyone must find somewhere to go and belong. Uniquely, it is a time when the ordinary and day to day must be suspended. It's as if all the energy and focus that Europeans spread across a year's worth of holidays is shoved into one weekend, where it is considered normal to fly across the country, or drive 12 hours, all to eat the same food with the same people. The tradition of hospitality attached to Thanksgiving, which requires that you invite anyone in your home who may have nowhere to go, is a wonderful thing. It's very clear to me why it is such an important holiday to so many here, in a way that sterotyped movies focused around turkey mishaps never quite capture.
Throughout graduate school, my mother would come to visit for Thanksgiving. She would spend a week with me in the US. We built a series of traditions around that week, just the two of us. A day wandering around DC, a trip to Phili to visit her friend, dinner at a particular restaurant in Baltimore. Thus, in that week, we re-affirmed each other's place in our lives, even though we were an ocean apart.
Each family, each person, each group of friends, builds a personal narrative of traditions with the holidays, places and times that we encounter throughout lives. Some of these traditions survive almost unchanged throughout huge chunks of our lives. The 24th of December in my family is merely a slight modification of the Holiday my mother learnt from her parents. Some are entirely new, arriving with new people or new places entering our lives. Some are abandoned, or modified. Some are created to mark new life stages. In this pattern of shared traditions across time and space, the ebb and flow of our lives, and our connections to our history, both personal and larger, are made explicit. A year full of public and private holidays to be celebrated in particular ways is a marker of a life lived in the company of others.
Happy thanksgiving.

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