“How many Thanksgivings do you celebrate?” my Singaporean friend asked.
I kind of laughed at the question because, in the US, the answer would generally be, "Just one," but things are different in Singapore. Since the Thursday of Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday, American here seem to celebrate Thanksgiving all week long.
For example, American Association of Singapore and the American Women’s Association co-hosted a massive Thanksgiving event this past Sunday at XCL American Academy, the event’s sponsors. It was fabulous! Two hundred people showed up to stuff themselves silly, try their hand at some crafts and play some games. It was exactly as Thanksgiving should be – only it was the Sunday before the actual date and nobody was watching football. Oh and well, there were a lot more families than I’d have diving into my turkey back home! Nor would we have so many crafts and games. I'd be too busy slaving away at the stove to manage.
AAS & AWA Thanksgiving at XCL American Academy
Thanksgiving has always been the most traveled holiday in the States because almost all Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, as it's not a holiday tied to a religion. And most Americans eat only one big meal on the day itself, the third Thursday of November.
Here, to accommodate work schedules, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the weekend before or after the official day. I kind of love that I eat turkey and all the fixin’s (as we say in Texas) for a solid week. It means I get a chance to see lots more friends and really spend time with people I don’t see often enough. I get to try more than one kind of sweet potato and maybe a new way of cooking turkey, my personal favorite meat. And I'm often celebrating with people who are not American.
I always find myself at the table with people who don’t know anything about Thanksgiving and I do my best to fill in the historical details. Last year, four of my Girl Scouts earned their Silver Award by teaching a class in American Cultural Literacy and you can bet, Thanksgiving was included. So what’s is all about anyway?
Who Started It?
The traditional story of Thanksgiving is that it originally began with the the Pilgrims, who went to the US from England in search of religious freedom. People in England were forced to worship under the Church of England and anyone who disobeyed this rule would be severely punished. The Pilgrims were fed up with how things were and, in 1620, they decided to move to Holland to seek a better life. The group was unsustainable in Holland so the Pilgrims decided to move yet again. They took a boat called The Mayflower which carried a total of 102 people on a journey that lasted 65 days.
The Pilgrims landed in Plymouth Massachusetts sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They were not farmers and were ill-prepared for the harsh winter so many starved and froze. By March 1621, only 47 of the Pilgrims survived.
As the story goes, the Pilgrims met a Native American tribe called the Wampanoags who taught the settlers how to farm which was life-changing. The Native Americans had been on the land a long time before the Pilgrims landed – almost 10,000 years before the settlers arrived. After the Pilgrims had a successful harvest with the help of the Natives Americans, the two groups had a big feast on the 25th of November 1621. This was later known as Thanksgiving. With this story in mind, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving an official holiday in 1863.
For some scholars, the jury is still out on whether the feast at Plymouth really constituted the first Thanksgiving in the United States. Indeed, historians have recorded other ceremonies of thanks among European settlers in North America that predate the Pilgrims' celebration.
More so, Thanksgiving is not seen as a joyous occasion by all. Native American tribes recall how the Pilgrims brought diseases that killed thousands of Native Americans and, eventually, how the settlers stole their land. Only a generation after the first supposed Thanksgiving, the settlers and Native Americans were at war. So for some, the holiday is a reminder of the oppression of their people and there have been calls to cancel the holiday completely.
Also, the food might have been very different at that first banquet than what we eat today. Some suggest it might have been a feast of oysters with no turkey in sight!
You can read more here about what some call the dark side of Thanksgiving.
Nevertheless, Americans still celebrate today with the "rosy version" of Thanksgiving in mind. If you ask most Americans what Thanksgiving means to them today, they'd likely tell you it's a day of giving thanks and of sharing food with family and friends. The traditional foods are those found in the Fall harvest in the US such as pumpkin, apple, squash and, of course, turkey. Every family celebrates differently. Every mother has a different recipe to pass on to her child.
For me, having lived here ten years, I think it'll be hard to go back to to the one-meal-a-year tradition in the US. There are so many joys of being an expat here which include introducing my friends from other cultures to our American Thanksgiving tradition. There is certainly much to be thankful for here, in our home of choice with our family away from family.