Posted By Jason Gilpin, Contracting and Agreement Officer, USAID Regional Mission for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova
For many people around the world, Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American Holiday. This holiday combines an assortment; a plate of folklore, a great bounty of food, a side of sports and a generous helping of commercial mass media, all set out on a board of essential purpose – of giving thanks for who and what we have, and appreciating all the goodness of this world for all its worth.
The story of destitute Europeans arriving on a strange shore, being helped by erudite Native Americans and breaking bread together in thanks is legendary. Like any folk story, historically speaking, it is partly true and partly false. But also like any folk story, its intent and meaning are crucial, and its historical veracity, less so. For me, the folklore of the Indians and the Pilgrims brings to mind a cornucopia of important themes: America’s diversity; the ancient wisdom, respect and resourcefulness of the Native Peoples; the courage and conviction of the Pilgrim adventurers in crossing the unknown; and last but not least the appreciation, which is universal among all peoples, for our lives, liberty, land and bounty.
Like many other modern Americans my childhood memories of Thanksgiving revolve around a perfectly roasted turkey, jellied cranberry sauce, fresh white corn, and seasoned stuffing with gravy. But Thanksgiving food can include more than just one fare.
Later as I grew up, I spent Thanksgiving in different parts of America with my relatives and noted how different just the holiday pies could be. For example one year, an uncle baked a Pennsylvania Dutch treat, Shoo-Fly Pie. On a different year on Thanksgiving, another uncle of mine, an outdoorsman, cooked squirrel pot pie. When we lived in Connecticut, in months of October and November hot apple pies accompanied the warm pumpkin pie.
The turkey bird itself is quite American, as it is native to North America. In fact, in a letter to his daughter in 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote that he thought that due to its particular demeanor, the wild turkey should be America’s national bird and not the bald eagle. (1)
Probably the truest American Thanksgiving food however is not turkey, it is corn or beans. These vegetables were abundant and readily accessible by the native peoples of North America. Some Native Americans of the Southern Plains, for instance, would not eat meat that had feathers or scales. (2) My parents are from the very aquatic State of Maryland, so it was never surprising to see steamed shrimp or hot crab soup show up on the holiday dinner table.
Unlike my fellow Pennsylvanian Benjamin Franklin, my Thanksgiving morning excitement has always involved American television. I relish watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade live in the morning from Fifth Avenue in New York City. My father and brother prefer the afternoon, watching college football as the warm house fills with the flood of food scents.
Overseas, I am not usually able to watch Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade live. More unfortunate of course, is the fact that I’m spending an important holiday away from family and friends back in the States. This year will be my fourth Thanksgiving holiday spent out of the USA.
My first thanksgiving away, I spent the evening alone while backpacking in Australia. It was there I appreciated the worth of the holiday season when spent with people you love. Even if you’re lounging on the beach in the tropics, even if you’re on the trip of your life, Thanksgiving is worthless without people you’re thankful to share it with.
I later found that when one is away, spending Thanksgiving with good friends can at least partially remedy the distress for not spending it with good family. For my second Thanksgiving, I went to Budapest to visit some American friends who were living and working there. I joined them at a massive Thanksgiving feast that boasted a table of guests from nine countries with dishes from around the world. There was a perfectly brined turkey (prepared by a vegetarian!), Viennese cookies, Japanese salad, Brussels sprouts and a potato casserole. Even though we watched American football, just to deliver on the ambiance, it was an international event. We went around the table giving toasts and sharing thanks for the providence that had brought us together to a small apartment in Hungary. Friendship and full bellies are cause enough for giving thanks anywhere.
The following year, I celebrated Thanksgiving Day in a small village in Ukraine. I joined eight other Peace Corps volunteers who descended on this tiny hamlet of only a few hundred souls in the rural panhandle of Ukraine’s Odessa region.
A local family, the Solivanskys, invited us over to pluck “the guest of honor”: a freshly killed turkey for dinner. Plucking a turkey was rather easier than I thought it would be. The feathers came right off after it had been soaking in hot water for a little bit. I had been eating turkey for nearly thirty years, but I’d never seen a cold one with its feathers on before.
After the guest of honor was stripped naked, scorched and chopped, we delved into cabbage salad, fresh brinza (goat cheese), and some spectacular potatoes while drinking homemade wine and country moonshine. As we toasted the guest of honor, our luck, women, and our lives, I ruminated on how the ritual of toasting was a Slavic form of thanks giving. A people who had endured so much tremendous hardship over the years savor the humble moment when they are surrounded by family, friends and plenty of food in a warm room.
In general, Americans deeply appreciate optimism, even if we don’t always practice it. Indeed, most of America’s greatest leaders were enduring optimists and the Thanksgiving holiday is all about optimism. In a world where we are all constantly flooded with dreadful news and hardship all year long, it’s important to dwell on all the positivity our lives are filled with.
Thanksgiving is not just about a holiday in late November, or turkey or football or Pilgrims or Indians. It’s about taking aside some time to ponder the supreme fortunes of our lives; that we have family and friends who love us; that we are born of these times; that we are free; that we have food to eat and a roof over our heads. The holiday adopted by Americans celebrates a universal notion which is shared by peoples around the world: that goodness should be observed and celebrated, and celebrated with good people.
(1) Gopnik, Adam. The New Yorker. “Turkeys and Thanksgiving in America”. November 2011. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2011/11/21/111121taco_talk_gopnik Accessed 18 November 2011.
(2) Sneed, General R.A. “Chronicles of Oklahoma” Vol. 14, No 2. Page 154. Accessed on Oklahoma’s State University site: http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/v014/v014p135.html on 18 November 2011.