They say that you never forget your first. Except in the case of many Americans’ first Thanksgivings — it’s an important tradition that most experience in their first year of existence and probably celebrate a few times before they truly start to remember the strange little reoccurrences, food, and the patterns in which friends and relatives show up. For nineteen-year-old me, who experienced her first Thanksgiving this year, I won’t be forgetting my first anytime soon.
Despite having an American mother, a father whose family was mostly living in the United States, and spending most of my holidays visiting family up and down the East Coast, I’d never experienced a true American Thanksgiving. However, this year, all the way back in July I was being integrated into the annual plans of my father’s family to gather in Mystic, Connecticut. I was surprised by the level of intricate details and the forward planning involved when dealing with Thanksgiving. Now in the lead up to winter celebrations that are days or weeks away, emails are still being sent trying to coordinate a date for the five members of my family that live in London. However, with Thanksgiving, many long email threads later between at least twenty people, trains were booked, and the necessary plans were in place.
Preparation for my first Thanksgiving was important, and to ready me intellectually (always the most important), my father sent me a Business Insider article with the rather long title of ‘The true story behind Thanksgiving is a bloody struggle that decimated the population and ended with a head on a stick.’ Crucial was the detail that Mystic may have been the originating town of Thanksgiving when “governor John Winthrop declared a day of thanks-giving to celebrate colonial soldiers who had just slaughtered 700 Pequot men, women, and children.” While my father deemed these facts important, my Mystic-residing family neither mentioned them nor seemed particularly concerned with the town history and traditions of Thanksgiving. This was indicative of something striking to me about the overall celebration of Thanksgiving: when celebrating holidays such as Christmas, Diwali or even the more secular 4th of July, the history of the tradition is intertwined with its celebration. Yet, when it came to my first Thanksgiving, no mention was made of the origins of the tradition. Murmurs of thanks for different things was one of only a few markers that this celebration was more than just a family gathering. Yet, there was nonetheless a concern with their own personal traditions and their developments over the past ten or twenty years. And, as with any holiday, new traditions are added.
My first American Thanksgiving began on the evening of the 21st of November when myself, my grandmother – who had flown over from London for the occasion – and the rest of the family began descending on one cousin’s house. Growing up, most of my time in America was spent with my mother’s family and while my cousins embraced one another having not seen each other for a few months, I was faced with some relatives that I hadn’t seen for ten years. Drinks were offered, and the British elements of the family came out with the many cups of tea being handed around. Then, within a matter of minutes of everyone’s arrival, two large dishes of lasagne (one meat and one vegetarian) were laid out and people helped themselves. The quantities of food certainly set the tone for the following days and with each meal, no one was shy in their eagerness to dig in. Meanwhile, young and old adults spread themselves out in intimate groups catching up on weeks, months or in my case, years. The true genius of the meal lay in the paper plates and plastic cutlery – no stress about dishwashing.
Soon after people had filled themselves with lasagne and settled down comfortably, I was introduced to another one of the “Thanksgiving Traditions”: board games. Highly competitive and different each time (to prevent individuals “practicing” throughout the year) this year’s game of choice was ‘Code Names.’ The game had been chosen by my cousin who happened to be studying a course on toys and board games. Judging by all of our enthusiasm, he had chosen well. But, with different family members joining and leaving the game it’s worth mentioning a key feature of my father’s side of the family – bedtime at 8 or 9 pm is standard for them. Thus, it wasn’t long before us college students, whose sleep schedules are beyond bizarre, were left to practice and ready ourselves for the important rounds of tomorrow. The day before Thanksgiving was thus an introduction for what was to come: food, tea, chatter, and games – a wholesome affair.
Speaking to friends, having returned from Thanksgiving break, they spoke of the lazy mornings, waking up at 11 am. I can’t say that I could relate my Thanksgiving to this. No, at 7 am, movement began with most people making their way to the kitchen before 9 am. The following hours were perhaps the most special to me throughout the entire holiday, encapsulating what I found so inviting about Thanksgiving. As family members came into the kitchen they asked for jobs and tasks which were quickly assigned: peeling potatoes, slicing carrots, preparing the Turkey, laying the table, and so on. With a deadline of 1 pm, everyone was kept busy pulling the “Thanksgiving Feast” together. Soon, I also learned that certain dishes were staples. A French cousin is known for his mashed potatoes – rich and delicious, he normally keeps the recipe to himself. However, this Thanksgiving was the one in which he decided to pass the recipes and techniques down to his son and together they worked to create the dish that is looked forward to throughout the whole year.
This wasn’t the only technique being passed down this Thanksgiving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Turkey be carved, and this year for 25 people there were two turkeys to deal with. Thus, grandfather demonstrated the tricks and skills needed to carve the turkey with beautifully engraved knives that had supposedly been in the family for several generations. Looking around the room, I was at first surprised by the excitement over the turkey; after all, in the UK, turkey is the quintessential school lunch food found in a whole host of forms ranging from turkey escalope to turkey twizzlers. However, seeing these two huge beautifully browned birds, even I had to admit there to be something finally inviting about Turkey. Yet, while the Turkey was impressive and surprisingly tasty, a newly introduced food was what stole the show for me: cheese. (Thank goodness for French relatives…) I wasn’t alone in my excitement as the 25 of us dug into eight different kinds of cheese, comparing them with one another and then bringing them over to fuel the rounds of ‘Code Names.’ Amidst these games I had the chance to speak with relatives I’d never met before; one relative, who it turned out had gone to Princeton and graduated in 1959 was delighted to find common ground, eagerly reminiscing. These conversations, many of which also occurred on the annual Thanksgiving walk seemed to represent to me the classic unions and reunions of Thanksgiving.
Growing up in a small but tight-knit family in London, big family gatherings weren’t a regular occasion and the chance to experience one of these larger celebrations was something I personally gave thanks for. Moreover, with an easy clean up due to the recyclable utensils used, and the eagerness expressed by everyone to help out, I was stunned by the lack of stress surrounding the occasion. There was no pressure to impress, no stuffiness or expectations, and each individual quite literally brought something to the table creating an altogether beautiful occasion. Unlike other holidays that I had experienced, there were no defining expectations or requirements for Thanksgiving (except maybe the presence of a turkey) and this perhaps explained at least part of the relaxed nature of the holiday: it was a holiday that I found to be defined by the people involved on that particular occasion and their believes as to what giving an showing thanks entailed.
My perception of my First American Thanksgiving may have already been altered by my growing excitement for the occasion but, regardless, the whole family affair lived up to the rather high expectations that I had.