What is this American holiday of Thanksgiving about, anyway?

landscapeMarie and I were married in 1995.  Marie is from Rwanda and I am from the United States, and for the first thirteen years of our marriage we lived in countries other than our own, first in Mali and then in The Netherlands.  Every year we would celebrate Thanksgiving with enthusiasm, often inviting twenty or thirty people into our home.  We were often asked, "What is this American holiday of Thanksgiving about, anyway?" The celebrations were logistically and culturally challenging.  In Mali, a hot and arid Sahelian country, we would order imported frozen turkeys from the US embassy commissary months before Thanksgiving day.  In The Netherlands, November was a drizzly month with an early dusk, and our challenge would be to convince our guests to leave their workplaces early, so that we would not have to try to have a huge feast of a meal in a couple of hours only and head back to work the next morning.  But people were always very eager to come to Thanksgiving dinner.  They saw it as a somewhat mysterious tradition that they only partly understood and wanted to experience.

We have tried to combine our two cultures in the way that we celebrate Thanksgiving.  From my side, there are the ingredients an American would expect: turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing.  Marie contributes dishes from Rwanda, which also has a festival, called Umuganura, where people express gratitude for the bounty of the year’s harvest.  Thus our Thanksgiving table will also include ibijumba (roasted sweet potatoes), imyembe  (mangoes), agasenda (very hot pepper sauce), and ikivuguto (rich buttermilk).  The colors and the tastes complement one another surprisingly well.

But it is the spirit of the holiday that has always touched our visitors.  I have always loved the fact that the Thanksgiving holiday is about gratitude, reflecting on blessings, and thinking about one’s commitments for the coming year.  Once friends were seated, I would offer a toast, explaining what Thanksgiving meant and how it came to be, and expressing how thankful we were to have all of those guests in our lives.  I would ask everyone to share one thing they were grateful for, and as we heard from everyone around the long table, the sentiments expressed were profound.  An Iranian refugee was grateful for the welcome that Holland had given him.  A Malian political leader expressed her thanks for the support that everyone had given her in the months since her husband had passed away.  A friend from Algeria was glad that after a decade of turbulence his country had become peaceful again, and his family was safe.  Our daughter’s French godmother was grateful about the chance encounter that allowed her to meet her British husband.  When you hear what people are grateful for, it is always deep and real and about their personal life.  And very often, it is a recognition of what others have done for them, or given them.  It is a real expression of community.

We have now been living in the United States for three years.   We have gotten used to not being the only ones on the block who are celebrating Thanksgiving. We are getting used to it being once again an extended family gathering and an afternoon meal, rather than a bustling, intercultural evening.  We’re getting used to not having to explain Thanksgiving to others, but instead to try to keep the spirit of gratitude uppermost even when we’re all barraged with ads about buying gadgets on Black Friday.

We will often get a warm email or Facebook message, years later, from someone who once celebrated Thanksgiving with us.  They know it’s that time of year, and they know what we’ll be doing.  And we still raise a toast, every year, in honor of all those people, over the years and across the continents, who have shared their gratitude with us.  Sharing thanks with others creates a strong and lasting bond.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone.