Celebrating Thanksgiving as an Expat– an Evolution

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This is going to be one of those really honest posts about expat life. You know by now that I really love living in Europe and that I fully embrace the expat experience. While I am honest about the struggles, like alienation and culture shock that come with expat life, I really love it overall. But friends, Thanksgiving is hard.

This will be our fourth year to spend the holidays away from home, and I really cannot say that it is getting easier. I have noticed that, like clockwork, I begin feeling sad in November. The melancholy and the ache in my chest get worse as the days pass and we get closer to Thanksgiving. It seems particularly bad this year, but it’s probably actually the same as the other three years. If I remember correctly, I should start feeling better once Thanksgiving is over, and fully recovered by New Years Day. This is particularly hard for me to acknowledge, given that Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday— it always has been. What could be more wonderful than a day filled with food, family, and gratitude? Not much, in my book! I wish I was “home” with my family, and I miss them.

Although the feelings haven’t changed much for me over the years, my approach has gradually evolved, and that is mostly what I want to talk about– because I think it’s important. The first year we were away, we were in Germany. I felt so awful about being far from family, that I just ignored Thanksgiving completely–  a turkey dinner for three at that point seemed more depressing than pretending it didn’t exist. Instead, we went out and enjoyed the first night of the Christmas market in our town– and it provided just the right kind of warm-fuzzies we needed that night. It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized that I felt like I had betrayed my culture. How could I have just not celebrated the best American holiday we have?  I decided to never skip it again, and then I roasted a turkey for my family.

The second year, we had just arrived in England after a true nail-biter of a year. We felt like we had lost it all, and then regained it again, just in time for Thanksgiving. Although it was hard to be alone again, I hardly had time to think about what we were missing back home, since I was just so overwhelmed with genuine gratitude for food, shelter, a stable job and a healthy family. It was just the three of us, but I made a really festive table and meal, and it was a special celebration for each of us.

By the third year, I was really struggling again. I do not often feel sorry for myself, but I will confess that I did last year. It’s not that I was less thankful for everything in our lives– I wasn’t. I just felt lonely and isolated, and wanted to join my family for a big meal. Then, something happened that completely changed my perspective. We were invited by an American family at my daughter’s school to an early Thanksgiving dinner with some other families, taking place in the school auditorium. I thought that it was a gathering of all the American families, and I was glad to be able to join them, even if I had literally never met a single one. But when we arrived, it didn’t take long for me to realize that it was actually something completely different. It had been a tradition for five years for the American families in a particular class to cook and serve a Thanksgiving dinner for the whole school. This year, it was smaller, and they were cooking and serving the feast for all of the families in that year (plus us.)  The kids were graduating and moving on to upper schools, so this was the last time.

Readers, I felt mortified by my bad attitude. When I saw these other American families sharing their resources, time and energy to bring those around them into the holiday, I realized that I had completely missed the entire spirit of Thanksgiving all of this time.  One tradition in my own family is that we always, always had at least one person, often more, from outside our family– an exchange student, a single person who was away from family, etc.– over to join us. How had I forgotten that part, too? This was the opportunity I had been completely missing! That year, we had not made any plans beyond a quiet turkey meal for our family. But on that Thursday morning, Jeff and I both decided that we needed to share, too. We went around to our neighbors’ houses and invited them over for dinner that night. On a side note, this is an extremely un-English thing to do– people rarely do anything spur-of-the-moment, and although it was unusual, we figured it could just be part of the American cultural experience. We found five people that could make it that night, and then we cooked up a storm all afternoon. In our neighborhood, most people don’t even know each other– they don’t socialize much. We actually introduced people to each other, even though they had been living a few houses apart for years– what a privilege. We had fun and it was a new thrill to share something of our American culture with the people around us. Did I still feel sad?  Yes, I did. But it was so much better to do something positive and to really celebrate Thanksgiving.

And now, we have Thanksgiving 2013 coming up in a few days. At first I had thought we’d do exactly the same and invite neighbors over. But I know of a few families that are spending their first holidays away from home this year, and we are inviting them over. We are terrible about planning ahead, but as our guest list settles in the next day or two, I’d like to see if we have room for a couple of neighbors or new friends as well. Will I be missing my family? Yes, of course– I always will.  But we will also be making our own memories and the tradition of Thanksgiving will gradually evolve with our family and the experiences we collect through the years.

As an American, it’s really important for me to show my daughter what the holiday means, and for her to have vivid memories of these special meals with community. There will be a big turkey on the table, traditional American foods, and English Elderberry Wine that we made last year. There will be other American families who come from all different backgrounds, and people from other countries, too. We will share this meal together and be family to each other for the evening. We will give thanks. We will share our joys and acknowledge that it’s kind of incredible that we all know each other and can share the holiday thousands of miles from our home countries and families– that we have much in common that we can be thankful for. And it will be delicious.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my American friends!

12 Responses to Celebrating Thanksgiving as an Expat– an Evolution

  1. Marisa November 25, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Beautiful post Ariana 🙂 And you will celebrate with your family once again – I just know it! The entire 7 years that I lived in Charleston I never made it home even once for Thanksgiving, so I do understand in some way what this means to you, what it is to be far from family on this special day. Though my experience can’t quite compare with being abroad in a land that doesn’t even celebrate this lovely holiday. And I love your idea of celebrating with those who may be alone or looking for a friendly place to celebrate. Over the past few years we’ve been inviting more and more people from outside our family – at both Thanksgiving and at Christmas and it has completely enriched both holidays. This year a friend from India will be celebrating with us and I couldn’t be happier 🙂 Much love and Happy Thanksgiving to you. xoxox

    • Ariana Mullins November 26, 2013 at 10:43 am #

      Thanks for your sweet words, Marisa. I did still really miss my California family when I was up in the Pacific Northwest celebrating– but it was of course still family and friends there, so it was easier. I think I just need to switch gears and make it a different focus than it has been in the past. I love that you have been inviting others to celebrate with you– it does make it more rich, doesn’t it?
      Lots of love to you and yours!

  2. Anonymous November 25, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    I too feel sad during the holidays, because I am not close to the family I love so much. This year, I will try not be cry as I prepare our meal on Thanksgiving. day. I get to see my father about once every seven years, it took me five years to visit my mother. Thank you for your post, I enjoyed reading it. -Vic

    • Ariana Mullins November 26, 2013 at 10:44 am #

      I’m sorry for your sadness, Vic– and I am glad you could relate to this. You are not alone in your loneliness! I hope your celebrations will be sweet anyway.

  3. Anonymous November 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    Lovely post, Ariana! Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday too, and I love that you have found a way to celebrate and share this special day with so many lucky people. ~Sherry

    • Ariana Mullins November 26, 2013 at 10:44 am #

      Thank you Sherry! I hope you have a wonderful celebration!

  4. Karen Meyers November 25, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    I’m sure it will be delicious and I am already giving thanks for the opportunity to gather together on Thanksgiving! See you Thursday!

    • Ariana Mullins November 26, 2013 at 10:45 am #

      So glad you can join us, Karen. It will be memorable, and part of the tapestry of Thanksgiving celebrations for our family over the years– so thank you!

  5. Liene November 26, 2013 at 4:52 am #

    It was this way for us also, and then we returned “home.” Now I get the ache about not being able to share this holiday with my French friends, as we had several awesome years of Thanksgiving with local and other expat families (not just from the US). Last year we solved that by having a newly arrived Brit family over, and this might be the new trend – to keep sharing Thanksgiving with those who have never experienced one… Happy Holidays Ariana!

    • Ariana Mullins November 26, 2013 at 10:47 am #

      Thank you so much, Liene! I think we have many really fun Thanksgiving celebrations ahead of us, now that I have shifted my focus from family to friends and sharing our culture. I loved hearing that you had so many good ones with your friends in France– that is encouraging for me. Have a wonderful celebration, this year with your family!

  6. Sandra December 27, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

    I would like to say it gets easier, but after 13 years away from my family in England, Christmas is still a difficult time of year. I have only been home once for Christmas and my mum came out once. It is usually just the four of us. My american husband and I have mixed up our different Christmas traditions to make our own, and we try to include our neighbours, who have become like extended family to us. I have always used the saying, “Life is what you make of it” with my kids, but it took me a little while to realise it applies to me too. 😉


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