More Than a Meal

Thanksgiving as a ritual of American identity

My Bangladeshi neighbor and her husband are hosting their first Thanksgiving and requested my company. My Mexican neighbor Emilia is preparing "Guajolote"—the indigineous word for turkey—and invited me to her Thanksgiving dinner. My Brazilian friend Leandro, who lives three blocks away, asked me to join him and his family for dinner Thursday evening. I cannot decide whether I want to compliment my turkey with a warm naan, with tortillas and salsa, or with a chilled Guarana soda. But I am not going to lie: I have not made a decision in part because I like feeling so popular. Three invitations—that's something to boast about.

At first, I was a bit surprised to get invitations to Thanksgiving dinner from, essentially, three foreigners, but after reflecting on my own Thanksgiving experiences, I understood why they were so eager to celebrate.

I have vivid memories of my own first real Thanksgiving dinner. My family had been living in the U.S. for nearly four years and every year the holiday would come and go without much pomp. I still liked Thanksgiving because, like any fifteen year old, I was happy to have a break from school. But my father treated it like any other house chore weekend. I take that back. Thanksgiving break was different because my father used all four days to catch up on all the accumulated mopping, washing, scrubbing, raking and weeding from previous months. After a day of brutal labor, my family ate dinner at the kitchen table, not the dinning room table, which was reserved for special occasions. Once we had chicken and rice; another time we had spaghetti with meatballs.

The year of 1999, my father decided to celebrate Thanksgiving. That was also the year my father decided we were staying in America for good. My siblings and I were delighted because we were spared a day of gruesome housework. My mother cooked a humongous turkey, way too big for a family of five, and we ate on the dinning table, which sported a new and festive tablecloth. We had mashed potatoes. And stuffing. With cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

I did not think much of that dinner back then; I was just happy to be spared from chores. But I now realize how momentous it was. I doubt my father gave much thought to the Thanksgiving legend, in which the Puritans supposedly shared a bountiful meal with the Indians. But I do know that my father saw Thanksgiving as a quintessentially American holiday. Celebrating Thanksgiving was, consciously or unconsciously, my father's way of becoming American. He is not particularly religious, but that day he led the dinner with A prayer and thanked God for the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving in America.

Interestingly, for my neighbors in Queens, celebrating Thanksgiving is also a way of becoming American—or, at the very least, of demonstrating appreciation for this country.

I asked Emilia why she was celebrating this holiday and she said, "I have lived here for fifteen years. It is about time that I do American things."

I asked Keia, my Bangladeshi, the same question. Before answering, she blathered about the Macy's parade and about the great pre-Christmas sales of Black Friday. She later explained that she and her husband celebrate Thanksgiving because they had been living in New York a long time, and "It just feels right to celebrate."

Leandro, my Brazilian neighbor, is more blunt and put it plainly, "Thanksgiving is a great holiday. You get two days off from work. You spend time with your family and you eat a lot. I would have to be crazy not to join in the fun."

He laughed and added, "Besides, I live here. My children were born here."

Keia is Muslim. Emilia is a born-again Christian. And Leandro is occasionally Catholic. I asked them if they thought that Thanksgiving was a religious holiday, and they all gave the same baffled look.

"It has nothing to do with religion. It is a national holiday" Keia said, almost defensively.

Neither Keia, Emilia, nor Leandro knew about the Puritan origins of Thanksgiving. None had heard that sometime in the autumn of 1621, Pilgrims held a three-day feast to thank God for their first harvest in their new homeland. They did not know that the legend of Thanksgiving is mostly based on Edward Winslow's written account of that feast. To my neighbors, Thanksgiving is not about an American past, but an American future—about their American future.

 
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