The first year I lived in the UK I was here with other American students. We lined up at the phones with our phone cards calling home and cooked a sort of Thanksgiving dinner with what we could find in the shops, which meant no pumpkin pie. We all felt a bit lost, unsure, but also a bit rebellious that we weren’t with our families for such a family focused holiday.
My second year in the UK I bought a massive turkey and invited loads of British friends around and cooked the whole meal myself and collapsed in a tearful wreck at the end of the day. It wasn’t Thanksgiving, just a massive meal with guests watching me expectedly throughout as if Something Important might be revealed. I felt very homesick.How do you share a holiday with people who don’t celebrate it? Sure, there are traditional foods you can serve (and all the ingredients are now readily available), sure there are a few regular routines each family follows, but what would those matter without the shared cultural backdrop to the day? The national holiday, the pause in autumn routine, the shops and television shows all swirling in a fest of reds, oranges, yellows and browns, the schools putting on pilgrim plays where little Native Americans hand ears of corn to little Pilgrim Fathers on stage (no, they don’t cover the bloody side of the shared experience of Europeans settling in the New World), and the countless turkey themed crafts for children, like the old favourite: tracing a line around your hand, colouring it in in turkey colours, taping it to the fridge door.
After the Year of the Massive Feast I didn’t do anything for Thanksgiving for many years apart from call home and listen to everyone else having a good time. Attempting to celebrate it in the UK amongst the British just emphasised how far from home I was.
Then 19 years later I started the blog, got more involved with online expat communities and started seeing a lot about Thanksgiving and how people believed they really were able to celebrate it overseas so I thought I might as well try again.
When we happened to have some fellow American expats visit the weekend after Thanksgiving one year I thought this was my chance to make an attempt. I thought with more Americans present there might be something more, some extra sense of the occasion to it. Having them there did help. We talked about the history of the holiday, what we did as children at school, what our families traditions were, and through the conversations and memories I did get a feeling of the holiday again, but I’m not sure if our British guests got any more than a panel discussion on American culture. I realised for me I need to be there, back home in the States amongst my family.
This year, I am making a pumpkin pie for dessert, quietly, without any big flag waving declarations about our Native American or Pilgrim Fathers (because I have ancestors on both sides of that meeting). When they see the pumpkin pie, someone in the house may say, “Oh! Is it Thanksgiving?” And I will say yes, and that will be it. You can click here to see my tongue-in-cheek article Tips for Pumpkin Pie You Won’t Get Anywhere Else.
I’m not sad about that, I have other things that I celebrate here in the UK that I didn’t back home (like Boxing Day, hurrah!) but I do look forward to the time when I can have a big Thanksgiving dinner with relatives again one day. Until then I won’t be celebrating any more Thanksgivings in the UK with a big meal, but I will do the small things and think of my family back home and in the spirit of the holiday I will give thanks for all that I have, including my homeland.
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.
Read more of Michelle's Expat Focus articles here.