“I’d like to say that I’m a grateful man, but it may not be true.”–The Avett Brothers, Pretty Girl From Chile
I’m just going to make a big statement: Recreating your own traditional holidays is really the only way to go. Do you have those traditions that you do every year? Do you have those foods or places or events or something that you think, “This just wouldn’t be the same without insert said tradition here.”
Maybe not forever. Maybe just one year. But see what it’s like. Remove it. Because then, in that empty space that used to be occupied with something familiar and comforting, you get to put something new. And that new thing? It could be BETTER than what you had there before.
Admittedly, the one thing I removed from my Thanksgiving Day tradition was pretty big: America. I knew I would not miss Thanksgiving itself, at least not very much. With 4 years in college, 5 years helping with the Thanksgiving Alive event in the Southwest Conference, 1 year in Boston, and 1 year in Germany…as far as I’m concerned, the only thing constant about my Thanksgiving Day tradition is to expect something new. I miss family and friends, and of course certain foods are always nice; but for a long time the only thing I have done every year on Thanksgiving without fail was watch Scent of a Woman starring Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnel. And this year I couldn’t even do that. So I figured, since Germany does not change its schedule for Thanksgiving week, then it will just seem like a normal Thursday, and I will take some time to talk to family back home, maybe have something special to eat, and that will be that.
What I never could have expected was how much I actually felt a need to celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s the first thing I have discovered about my American upbringing that really…lives in me. As the weather got cold, the days grew shorter, and I could not escape knowing that the final week of November was rolling around, I found myself entering the mood of Thanksgiving. Kind of the same way that you find yourself driving home at the end of the day without really thinking about it. It’s a sort of muscle memory that guides you to where you need to be.
It was this impulse to, not just BE thankful, not just to list the things for which I AM thankful; but an impulse to Give out of that Thanks. To share that with others. It became a project that lasted all week.
It started with the Brighten Up Black Friday project (more on that later), and grew into a series of meals and celebrations; most of which were not planned in advance. On Monday, my Hungarian friends who live on my floor at the Seminary, made a traditional Hungarian meal for the floor. Everyone gathered around the table and shared stories and examples of our various traditions. At that time, no one knew it, but I was constantly comparing our evening to the Thanksgiving episode from the first season of Felicity, when all the freshmen who can’t go home have to make Thanksgiving dinner for themselves. We talked, we bonded, we toasted our newfound friendships, and, us foreign students, felt a little more at home in our new land.
Wednesday it was my turn. With a day off from German class, it was the one day that I could make a meal for my friends at the Seminary. I used Anna Tinker’s (now) WORLD FAMOUS Stuffed Green Peppers recipe and spent the entire morning shopping for food and cooking for everyone. I wanted to make some kind of traditional Thanksgiving dessert to share with everyone, but “canned pumpkin” is, it turns out, a uniquely American phenomenon. I am not an experienced cook to begin with, so when I can’t find the ingredients I need, I give up very quickly. But, I found the next best thing. There is a certain beverage that I found at the grocery store that immediately makes me think of important American festivals, traditions, and special occasions (it’s called Knob Creek, just so you know) so I bought that and informed everyone that in the evening we would share a little toast and give thanks.
I spent all morning, and most of the afternoon preparing and cooking. Now, I take no delight in cooking. I am nervous the entire time that I will find a way to ruin whatever it is I’m trying to make. And then, in the end, even when people say how great and delicious and inventive it is, I am pretty sure they are just being nice. I’m really not comfortable with the whole thing until it’s over and I am washing dishes (which, oddly, is something I actually like doing). But, there is something to be said about Preparing For Others. Giving of your time, money, and energy FOR someone else to eat. It centers you around the needs and concerns of someone other than yourself. It literally shifts your perception of your place in the world.
We shared lunch, then that evening we went to an American Burger Joint (hilarious! I need to go back with my camera before I go into detail about that…but imagine a Texas Roadhouse crossed with a Fudruckers! It was perfect!), saw the new Harry Potter movie, and shared a drink afterwards. As we stayed up talking, and we realized it was well past midnight, I realized that just as Thanksgiving Day had officially begun, I had just finished the greatest Thanksgiving Day celebration I have had in quite awhile.
Thanksgiving Day was fantastic. I walked into my German Language Course and introduced my international friends to the tradition of Thanksgiving. I brought with me the food of our adopted homeland—Berliners—and we gathered for food, stories, and giving thanks. It resulted in many hugs, much laughter, and a lot of new friends on Facebook. We have been together for several weeks, but this was really a turning point for us as a group. It seems our Thanksgiving Celebration pushed us a little bit, allowing us to embrace each other a little more. In the past couple days since then, we talk to new people, we socialize more during the class break, and we meet up to get to know one another outside class. For some, all that was already going on. But for me…Giving Thanks for and WITH this group opened me up to the possible friendships and discoveries that were just lying in wait among my fellow German Language students.
The night was capped off by welcoming Inka back to Germany and giving thanks for her safe return.
It’s incredible how many times in my life I have had to be reminded of this pattern: Give and you receive. Give away and you get. Empty out and you are full. Thanksgiving may be the most powerful tradition we have in America…it’s certainly the first one I have found that has translated so well to people from so many other countries. But I think the trick is, not just to HAVE Thanks or to BE Thankful. But to GIVE out of Thanks. I think Thankful GIVING may be the only cure for, not just selfishness, but doubt, anger, cynicism…Thanks seems to counter act all the powerful forces that have, at times, worn on my heart and closed me off from the world. Giving out of my Thankfulness puts me in touch with the source of life, which God gives freely and abundantly to all of Creation. Stepping—even momentarily—into that stream, melts my heart of ice and allows life to flow through me. I know I will forget that. I know there will be times (and there certainly HAVE BEEN times) when I am defiantly stepping out of that stream, or trying to dam it up for myself. I know that will happen. I can only hope and pray that God will continue to bless me with so many incredible people who help push me back into the stream. And it is out of Thanks for these people that I Give to others.