Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

An expat’s guide to Thanksgiving abroad

Thanksgiving holds great sentimental value to many Americans, and for those abroad arguably even more. It is a celebration revolved around family, dear friends, and tradition. In the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, allowing relatives and friends to catch up on their experiences of the past year. Much like Christmas, Thanksgiving is a joyous time spent mostly on feasting but also on socializing, playing games, relaxing by the fire and of course drinking. Unlike Christmas, however, gifts are not usually exchanged during Thanksgiving celebrations.


As its name suggests, Thanksgiving is a holiday centred around the concept of gratitude and recognition for all the good things and benefits in one’s life. Americans by in large have interpreted this to be giving thanks to God. As Abraham Lincoln famously proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”.


acquiring a huge turkey a month before Christmas can be surprisingly challenging


While historically the celebration was to give thanks for massive events such as a military victory or the end of a drought, today Thanksgiving is celebrated for things far more personal and quotidian. It is considered to be one of the more wholesome calendar events, with family reunions and paid federal holidays on both the Thursday and the Friday, making for a nice 4-day weekend.


While celebrating Thanksgiving overseas comes with its unique challenges, it is always a very rewarding and exciting experience. The main challenge is actually getting a decent-sized turkey in time. In the UK, of course, turkeys are eaten for Christmas. British people don’t start shopping for turkeys until around mid-December, so acquiring a huge turkey a month before Christmas can be surprisingly challenging.


This challenge is made all the more painful when we hear of how easily our relatives back home acquire their super-sized turkeys. I kid you not, in some cases at certain stores, they offer you a free proper sized turkey if you spend over x amount on merchandise. In my family’s case in the UK, however, once the turkey is pre-ordered, it’s generally smooth sailing for the rest of it.


I managed to organize two Thanksgiving meals with my flatmates


Before I was born, when my parents used to live near Reading, their next-door neighbors were also Americans. This fortunate happenstance led to a Thanksgiving tradition between our two families in which we would alternate hosting the other for the Thanksgiving meal.  One year they would host, and the following year it would be our turn. Remarkably, this plan has endured over the years, starting in 1994 and continuing to this day (this year it’s my family’s turn to host).


There were pauses, such as when my family moved back to America for a period, but then when my parents decided to come back to England, the plan resumed. The hosting family is in charge of what are deemed “the essentials”, that is to say the turkey, the stuffing, the cooked vegetables, potatoes, the main casseroles, the cranberry sauce. The visiting family brings the dishes that are easy to transport such as the cornbread, the pecan, pumpkin and apple pies etc.


For our particular Thanksgiving meal, I always make a big batch of Eggnog. This indulgent creamy American drink is usually only drunk during Christmas time. However, since so many of us adore the taste, we decide to bend the rules a bit and make some for Thanksgiving too. The preparation of the meal is always an exciting affair, as we inevitably enter a race against time to put the turkey in the oven long before the guests arrive. The actual meal though is a very special experience.


During certain years, Thanksgiving may be the only time we see the other family in that year, so there is of course a lot of catching up to do. After the meal, we usually go for a walk to help our stomachs digest the mountain of delicious food. We then come back to the house to play hearty family games, ranging from trivial pursuit, risk, monopoly, taboo and of course Charades!


During my time at university, I managed to organize two Thanksgiving meals with my flatmates. The first was during my first year, while living in Arthur Vick. It was a really great success, all to the credit of my enthusiastic flatmates. Around 15 of us spent 2 days cooking, each dish being assigned to a group of 2 or 3 people. We collaborated with another kitchen, thereby doubling the kitchen utilities at our disposal (oven, stove etc.).


the menu was also very international, with people bringing dishes from their own countries


The whole experience, from buying the ingredients at Tesco, to the cooking, to the meal, and to the fun games afterwards was so rewarding and really brought all of us closer as a flat. The only stressful part was the initial planning when it wasn’t at all clear that we could make it work. But Arthur Vick prevailed!


During my year abroad in Japan, I decided to try the Thanksgiving meal idea again, given its tremendous success the first time. There was however, one huge obstacle, which we couldn’t overcome. Japanese kitchens do not usually have ovens. My accommodation only had mini toaster-like ovens, stoves and a rice cooker. So, I enjoyed my first ever turkey-less Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, we got some nice veal to cook on the stove as a substitute. My flatmates in Japan hailed from all over the world, so the menu was also very international, with people bringing dishes from their own countries.


Thanksgiving is a great holiday that leads naturally into the Christmas season. It is a fantastic excuse to feast on the food we all love, especially for foodies like me and my family. But it’s also a time of reflection and sharing, as we look back on the year that is almost up. It’s a time to think of all the joys of the past year and of all the plans we might want to do in the upcoming year.

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