Picture thisA 10-kilo turkey as the centrepiece, brined beautifully and prepared with fresh orange peels, cinnamon sticks, and a bit of rum; casserole dishes surrounding the main course filled with green beans and french-fried onions, apple stuffing, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes; situated near bowls of pumpkin soup and corn; and, pumpkin and apple pie nestled between the plates of multiple helpings.
During my first year abroad, 25 people gathered inside a 30 m2 studio apartment to get a taste of their first traditional American Thanksgiving (not to be confused with that of the Canadian variety). As the Dutch say, it was gezellig. The conversations and the cosyness of the environment, plus the bellies stuffed with food made it an intimiate affair, setting the precedent for many “American Thanksgivings” in Holland.
However, this year, between the shadow cast by the Presidential election and its aftermath and my mini-existential crisis (how is a storyteller/marketer for sustainability supposed to sell “hope” in this Trumped-up world exactly?), I’ve let Thanksgiving slip by me and there will be no 25-person dinner to be had. And instead I’ve jumped right to Sinterklaas (that’s for the next post…SPOILER ALERT).
This raises the age-old(ish) expat question, how do you keep cultural traditions alive in an entirely different culture?
1. Mark it in your calendar
Last year, I marked exactly when I planned to celebrate Thanksgiving about two months in advance.
I did this to ensure enough people would show up at my dinner – because hosting a Thanksgiving dinner by myself was really not desirable – and as a reminder to not let it slip by. It’s easy for a holiday like this to come and go in a country where turkeys have to be imported. We don’t have a day off for it (so there’s no four day weekend to remind you: oh! hey! It’s Thanksgiving!); we don’t have a department store parade that gets you in the mood to celebrate or constant advertisements for the subsequent and brutal Black Friday; and I can’t find ‘Thanksgiving’ type foods lining the grocery store shelves strategically placed at eye-level and at the entrance. With so few reminders that the holiday exists, the only option to remember when to celebrate is to put it in my calendar. Needless to say, it was not in my calendar this year.
2. Merge it with a local tradition (i.e. Sinterklaas)
Okay, so there’s that weird word again…Sinterklaas.
I will dive into it a bit deeper in the next post, but because Thanksgiving is only separated by one week from the Dutch holiday tradition of Sinterklaas, I’ve decided to merge the two holidays; embracing both cultures and essentially both aspects of me. It’s also a creative alternative for when I forget to add Thanksgiving in my calendar as a separate holiday.
Starting new traditions can be quite fun and while I’m not ready to have a family yet, I’m seeding the groundwork for some nice new cultural embraces and this is one that I think I’ll continue. For instance, this year, we’ll be eating Turkey and stuffing our faces with chocolate while reciting silly poems. My “Dutch” Thanksgiving may not be on the last Thursday of the month, but it is on a date somewhere between Thanksgiving and Sinterklaas and still a precursor to Hanukkah and Christmas (don’t even get me started on Hanukkah).
3. Keep it small and gezellig
With the potential of celebrating four holidays (Thanksgiving, Sinterklaas, Christmas, and Hanukkah) in order to keep cultural traditions alive and in an effort to start some new ones, the thought of hosting yet another dinner in a very compact holiday season can be daunting.
If you’re like me, you may have even purposely (on a somewhat subconscious level) forgot to mark Thanksgiving on your calendar because the thought of kicking off the cooking season seemed somewhat daunting. I plan on hosting a Sinterklaas/Christmas dinner with my roommates on top of a Thanksgiving/Sinterklaas dinner with my boyfriend and his friends. That’s two dinners and a lot of cooking, clean up, and money.
My advice: keep it cosy. This year, I’ll be preparing Thanksgiving sandwiches – turkey or chicken (or not for those of us who don’t eat it), stuffing, gravy, and cranberries with a side of green beans. The dessert – chocolate letters for Sinterklaas. With my roommates (about two weeks later), we’ll each be making a dish that’s representative of our cultures for our Sinterklaas/Christmas dinner. I have no idea what they’ll be cooking, but I’ll be cooking potato latkes and we’ll be eating more Sinterklaas chocolate for dessert. These are just some easy and affordable ways to enjoy the holiday celebrations without breaking your spirit and your bank account.
And as the Dutch say, the more “Gezellig” the better.
They didn’t actually say that, but when living in a Dutch country it’s a good excuse to not have to invite everyone under the sun and make every dinner massive. Keep it “gezellig”.