Celebrating Thanksgiving as an Expat

6 Dec 2022 | International

Thanksgiving in America has just concluded, and since most French people don’t really have any experience with the holiday, we asked Shane to talk to us about it. Shane is an American and has been our inhouse proofreader for the last 5 years.

Q: As I’m sure you’re aware, France doesn’t celebrate any form of Thanksgiving. Can you give us a bit of a history lesson? What is Thanksgiving? Where does it originate?

Thanksgiving in America has historical ties dating back to the early 17th century. When I was in elementary (primary) school, American children were taught of the First Thanksgiving where pilgrims and a tribe of natives feasted together to celebrate the first bountiful harvest in the New World and seal a binding accord for the protection of the newly arrived immigrants from other tribes.

Even before this “First Thanksgiving”, however, the holiday itself was old hat. Certainly, pagan harvest festivals occurred throughout recorded history, in honour of Demeter or Dionysus, Ceres or Saturn. Thanksgiving specifically had strong ties to Christianity in England, but remained, in its essence, a celebration and a means of giving thanks for a successful harvest and thus the ability to sustain the long, dark winter.

There is a bit more to this story. As America started as a union of separate and individual States with very little federal oversight, many of the States celebrated Thanksgiving at various dates throughout the harvest season. The story goes that one woman, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, had written to various members of congress for some 40 years. In the midst of the American Civil War, in 1863, President Lincoln finally proclaimed a national holiday alongside a proclamation that he hoped it would help to heal the nation. The reason it is the last Thursday in November even though harvest season is generally much earlier, is because it was set to coincide with “Evacuation Day” an American holiday I didn’t even know existed. It celebrated the exodus of the British after the Revolutionary War. 

Our Changing Relationship with Food

Q: It seems like a harvest festival is not really attuned to the modern world. How has the holiday managed to last?

Well, let’s just say it’s hard to take away a paid holiday from overworked employees, especially when all you’re expected to do is eat!

However, it is true that our relationship with food and annual harvests isn’t the same as it was in the 1600s. I think this is based on 3 main points:

  1. Society has moved from (mostly) self-sustaining homesteads to sprawling cityscapes.  
  2. Globalization, improved transportation, and improved methods make fresh fruits and vegetables available year around.
  3. Industrialization has seen our food shift largely from raw ingredients to processed and manufactured goods

Aside from a few urban gardens, cities would be an impossible problem if not for the farmers who struggle through long hours with intemperate weather, mass production, and living on a razor’s edge in terms of profitability. And let’s be honest, as gratifying as it is to pick your own tomatoes or zucchini, those urban gardens aren’t meeting anyone’s annual calorie intake.

And yet, in modern western civilization, a bad harvest isn’t necessarily a death sentence. Where there may be flooding or drought in some regions in some years, we also have the ability to import food from other regions, to improve yield and to make our grains and vegetables more resilient to harsh whether through genetic engineering and cross pollination.

It’s hard to expect a population to give thanks for a harvest few understand, when, for decades now, food, in any form, has been taken for granted. Whatever nature throws at us, we almost never have to question where we’ll find out next meal or snack.

Thanksgiving in modern America

Q: Before moving to France in 2011, what was Thanksgiving like for you and your family?

Thanksgiving officially launches the holiday season for us in the U.S.: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all within just a few short weeks. It carries with it a level of excitement knowing that the end of the year is only stone’s throw away, plus, let’s be honest, there is something great about a holiday where all you’re expected to do is eat!

But in a lot of ways, Thanksgiving came to represent more of a marketing ploy for Christmas than a holiday in its own right. Every Thanksgiving for nearly a century now, the Macy’s department store has sponsored a massive parade that runs through New York City and is broadcasted to televisions all across America. With Santa Claus and the biggest characters of the year floating along the streets like giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Men, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is as much a staple of the holiday as turkey and mashed potatoes. 

And obviously, no discussion of the holiday is complete without acknowledging Black Friday. The year’s biggest sales event where mobs of human’s used to descend on stores across the nation en masse for an extra big price drop on those latest electronic gadgets. All of this as part of a lead up to Christmas season. In fact, when I was a kid you could mark your calendar by the holiday and know when you fired up the radio the day after Thanksgiving, the 24/7 Christmas music marathon would begin.

So, in short, a typical Thanksgiving celebration has little to do with the original meaning of the holiday. It remains an occasion to feast with family or friends, but even when I was a kid the television had taken pride of place in most households, whether to watch the annual Detroit Lions or Greenback Packers football games or the Macy’s parade.  

Thanksgiving from Abroad

Q: Now that you live in France, how do you keep the holiday alive in your family?

Since I left my home country back in 2011, I have maintained the habit of having a small Thanksgiving celebration the 4th Thursday of every November. Since it started as a harvest festival, a lot of Thanksgiving revolves around food. Green bean casseroles, turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin, pecan or apple pie… In France, however, there is no national holiday and thus no opportunity to while away hours cooking entirely too much food.

We try to prepare a bit ahead of time so we aren’t eating too late at night, whether that means steaming and cutting some potatoes or prepping the stuffing or deserts a few days earlier. This year, for example, the menu contained a turkey roast, stuffing, cheesy potatoes, green beans and a pecan pie.

When it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, I try to find a balance between nostalgia and eating locally. Whether it’s ordering a turkey from my local butcher’s shop or vegetables from the local market, I do try to ensure that I help drive commerce in my town and support farmers in my region. But there are certain memories from my childhood that are inexorably tied to the food and Thanksgiving experience that I do want to pass down to my children as well, and that’s something I feel strongly about, even if it does tie me into more global food markets, such as pecans which are often harvested in North America.

But above and beyond the food, Thanksgiving has taken on much more of its original meaning in my household. It is an occasion to spend time as a family and share and pass on values.

Q: You talked about passing on values. What values do you try to pass on to your children through the holiday?

I think it’s threefold my takeaway for the holiday and what I try to pass on. One, we have a beautiful, bountiful planet. I appreciate being able to enjoy a mango from time to time, even though one would never grow naturally in the Pays de la Loire region, but I try to ensure the majority of my food is local, if not my region at least the country or one of our nearest neighbours, like Spain or Italy. That’s to help local commerce but also, and especially, to cut down on overseas shipping, not because I’m worried about some murky and vague threat of future impact on the climate, but because I think it’s just unnecessary pollution. We have a beautiful planet that provides for us, and I want to keep it that way as long as possible with whatever small gestures I can make.

The second is the importance of family. Not everyone is lucky enough to have such a strong support group, but when we have that chance, we have to nurture it. Put down our phones and gadgets, turn off our screens, look each other in the face, and connect. I am a fan of tech and a bit of a geek, if I do say so myself! But whatever the next big thing in tech happens to be, I don’t think that there is anything that can replace real human connection.

And finally, I try to impart on my children that we have enough in our lives for which to be thankful. And that it’s worth taking the time and setting aside a specific occasion to think about those blessings, those things in our lives we too often take for granted, from health and happiness to togetherness and the people who enrich our lives, from a comfortable home to the things that fill it, and our souls, with warmth. That’s Thanksgiving to me, and that’s what I try to pass on to my kids!