I spent the first semester of my freshman year of university in Scotland.
It's a long flight there and back.
And they don't celebrate Thanksgiving.
So there I was, my first year away from home to start with, in a foreign country on top of that, facing the prospect of my first ever Thanksgiving without my family and friends and without any notice from the rest of society. I would have classes the day of Thanksgiving, I would have them the day after, and no one (except the other American students) would understand why this made a difference.
I had tons to be thankful for: family, friends, good health, and this huge opportunity for me to be experiencing life in a new place.
But for a holiday about giving thanks, that didn't seem to be enough.
The two components of Thanksgiving for me were always the food and being surrounded by my family and friends, the people who loved me unconditionally. In Scotland, I was facing thousands of miles of distance between myself and my family group and you just can't buy most of my family's traditional foods there (without paying a huge price to import it).
Pumpkin is only available at the gourmet stores, where they imported Libby's brand pumpkin just for the American exchange students who were studying at the University. Cranberry sauce is the traditional meaning, a fairly liquid-y affair rather than a deliciously gelatinous blob that retains the shape of the can from which it comes. Turkey (not that I eat it anyway) isn't stocked in the butcher shops until closer to Christmas. Little things that I'd taken for granted (like so much in my life) were no longer there.
There were no turkey decorations, no pumpkin-flavoured baked goods and drinks, no politically incorrect pictures of awkward pilgrims and native Americans.
And, once I remembered the occasion that started Thanksgiving, it made sense. And I didn't really expect a Thanksgiving.
I lived with another American exchange student and three Europeans (all of whom I absolutely adored). The other American girl and I decided we couldn't make it through without some type of Thanksgiving, so we planned one.
I was also lucky enough to find a bible study group; there were many Americans and a Canadian in that group and, just because we loved food, fun, and trying new things, we decided to have a Thanksgiving feast too.
And you know what?
They were both fantastic.
I may have been eating vegetarian haggis instead of fake turkey...but it was Thanksgiving.
Those around me may have been strangers as of three months before but we had found tremendous affection for each other...and it was still Thanksgiving.
I may have been missing some of my family's traditional dishes and learning about some of the Thanksgiving foods from across the nation...but it was still Thanksgiving.
It wasn't the Thanksgiving I was used to and as I always pictured it...but it was definitely still Thanksgiving.
And I learned a lot from that. Thanksgiving doesn't need to be the same thing every year to be wonderful; you don't need to have a Norman Rockwell occasion to have fun and feel happiness. It was very different and often funny* but it was incredible. I got to teach people about hand turkeys and my family's traditions, I got to learn about new foods (that I now want to make for Thanksgiving this year) that are traditional to others, and I realised that I still had those love and food components that really made Thanksgiving what it was.
Most of all, I learned to be thankful in a whole different way. Thankfulness for new friends, for sillness, for love and support, for learning new things, for new experiences, for opportunities. Thankfulness for all that continues to be dropped in my lap.
This year it appears (as of now) that I'll have not one but three Thanksgivings, including one with the same people and foods I was raised with. I'm excited to have that again and I know that I will love it...but I think I will miss that strange and wonderful experience that I had in Scotland, learning new things, teaching new things, and creating something completely different. It was so different but still amazing.
I'm still learning that. Different doesn't have to be awful; it may be frightening at first but that doesn't mean it won't be beautiful, too.
Do you celebrate Thanksgiving? If so, what traditions abound at your Thanksgiving? If not, what do you think you would like most about Thanksgiving?
Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate it and happy Thursday/almost winter holidays to everyone. I am thankful for you.
*At my bible study group, the Scottish and English students (one boy in particular) were wary of pumpkin pie; they always thought of pumpkin as a savoury food and couldn't understand it as a dessert. They all promised to try it but looks of dread abounded until they got their first taste. All but one ended up loving it. (Related, one of the girls in my flat, who is from Norway ended up becoming completely enamoured of it.)