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Thanksgiving is a huge deal in the U.S.—Americans, who very rarely take off work due, take time during the end of November to stop and reflect. But where does this tradition come from? What is being celebrated? As an American myself, I sometimes forget that this holiday is very specific to my culture and might be misunderstood in other parts of the world. As Thanksgiving approaches while I study away from home in Denmark, I am reflecting on what this time means to myself and others in the U.S. I am here to explain the ins and outs of Thanksgiving, hoping to offer a glimpse into this special holiday. 

Thanksgiving is celebrated on November 24th, the last Thursday of the month. According to Emily Martin’s 2021 National Geographic article on the evolution of Thanksgiving, “historians long considered the first Thanksgiving to have taken place in 1621, when the Mayflower pilgrims who founded the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts sat down for a three-day meal with the Wampanoag.” The literal definition of thanksgiving is the expression of gratitude, especially to God. This significance was often met with a “bountiful harvest,” which established the food tradition Thanksgiving relies to heavily on. At first, there was not a consistent celebration of this holiday, and it signified various things, such as victory in war against Native Americans or a religious event. It was Abraham Lincoln that solidified the holiday in the U.S.

Now that the brief history is established, how does this relate to the modern-day celebration? What does Thanksgiving look like today? Well, the feast aspect of the holiday has remained, and you should probably wear loose clothing for the full day of eating ahead. The food itself is what gathers the family together, and the selection of dishes is often only made during this specific holiday. These traditional dishes include a turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, stuffing (baked bread crumbs, vegetables, broth), gravy, marshmallow and sweet potato casserole, and more.           

The desserts are also specific to this holiday, usually including pumpkin pie and pecan pie. While these meals are more frequently prepared for Thanksgiving, they do apply to the more general American holiday season, as many of these dishes are also prepared for Christmas festivities. Comfort food is very important to Americans, and this element creates a very cozy and warm association with Thanksgiving.

The food preparation can take days: the family normally congregates in the kitchen at this time, pitching in and socializing. The house smells divine, teasing your nose. There is not really a defined Thanksgiving music, but traditional jazz tunes likely fill the room. Usually, the weather is crisp and the leaves are turning, depending where you are (and on climate change…). Once the food is ready, family and friends gather around the dining table or common eating space. Some families, including mine, take the time to go around the table and say what each person is most grateful for. It may sound cheesy, but this really is the essence of the Thanksgiving holiday—to give thanks. I particularly like this element, because it leaves room for everyone to enjoy the holiday, regardless of religion, age, gender, or race.      

Thanksgiving is not limited to a certain subgroup of people who believe in a certain god or way of life. This holiday really accommodates anyone and everyone, making it very special and unique.

Another special and accommodating aspect of Thanksgiving is “Friendsgiving.” This term refers to the celebration of Thanksgiving with one’s friends rather than family. It is no secret that though holidays are ideally merry and jolly, they can be quite the opposite for many people around the world. Whether going through loss, heartbreak, depression, or sickness, the holiday season can exacerbate painful emotions if they act as a reminder of what is missing. But, Thanksgiving offers an opportunity to combat this phenomenon, as it caters to those who might be away from family or who don’t have a family. In this sense, Thanksgiving can be shared between friends or acquaintances, as most everyone celebrates it, and it can be celebrated more casually than a religious holiday such as Christmas or Hanukkah. Thanksgiving redefines the concept of family, opening it up to those you love, regardless of blood. 

As the Thanksgiving feast proceeds, everyone seated around the table begins to swell with food and turn sluggish. Plates are cleared and the clean up begins. The remainder of the day is left for relaxing, digesting, watching movies, and just being lazy with loved ones.

American football also goes hand in hand with the Thanksgiving holiday, so it is usually being played in the backyard or watched on the TV. There is no gift giving during Thanksgiving, as it focuses not on material goods, but rather quality time. Therefore, there is not as much pressure to please and provide as there is around Christmastime. What makes Thanksgiving so beautiful is its emphasis on being vulnerable, reflecting on the blessings in life, and displaying gratitude—humanity is celebrated.

The day after Thanksgiving, those who are impatient immediately prepare for Christmas, playing holiday tunes, browsing for a tree, and redecorating the house. The festivities continue, and the holiday spirit only grows stronger as the weather grows colder. Though the term doesn’t exist in English, hygge—a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being, a defining characteristic of Danish culture—perfectly describes the holiday feeling. Even if we come from vastly different cultures and areas of the world, we as humans are all connected in our desire to find safety, comfort, warmth, and love. These are the attributes Thanksgiving aims to bring to life, and everyone is included in the celebration. 

Special thanks to Audrey Kuhn for the wonderful photos—check out her Italian restaurant in San Francisco, Che Fico Alimentari. 

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