As another summer drew to a close, I carefully noted the dates of the upcoming High Holidays in my calendar. Then I added the times and day that my son’s Jewish elementary school would be closed, the meals we would have with family, and those with friends. Before skipping forward to write in the first candle of Hanukkah, however, I paused on the last Thursday in November: Thanksgiving.
As an American living in London, with a British husband and two British-born boys, I had the same question every year—where exactly did Thanksgiving fit into our already crowded autumn, far from the fabled land of Pilgrims and Native Americans?
The first few years that I lived in London, I didn’t miss American holidays that much. Fourth of July felt eerily quiet without fireworks, and no amount of sniffing could locate the cinnamon and sweet potato scents of Thanksgiving, but I was too busy being a 20-something to put much thought into those occasional moments of homesickness. My one brief investigation into having Thanksgiving in London had revealed that November meant Bonfire Night (celebrating Guy Fawkes’ failure to destroy the Houses of Parliament in 1605), turkeys were only for Christmas, and that no one had heard of canned pumpkin. In fact, no one even wanted to know about canned pumpkin.
It wasn’t until years later, when I had children—boys with British vocabularies and North London accents, complete with muddled f’s and th’s and dropped t’s—that sharing American holidays from my pre-London life started to feel important again.
When my first son was born, I was determined that he would know about all aspects of his inherited identity—the Jewish, the British, and the American. We joked that he was “bilingual” in both American and British English, and early on, I ensured he had a navy blue passport to go alongside the deep red of the British one. I smiled when he made his teddy bear a matching blue passport, which we carefully packed on trips to the States.
But it wasn’t until we made a return trip to the US Embassy to register our second son’s birth that I finally decided to implement some American holiday traditions. Applying Jewish logic to the situation, I concluded that a meal was as good a place to start as any. My new baby was only a few months old, the early darkness of the British winter was setting in, and I wasn’t even sure if I could find the right ingredients, but I was determined for our family to celebrate Thanksgiving. With sudden zeal, I started organizing a dinner with friends, each family Jewish and half-American, just like us.
I was surprised to discover that by the time I had decided to introduce Thanksgiving into our lives, the UK food industry had also come to embrace the holiday. In addition to the 200,000 or so Americans living in the UK, it had gained popularity with Brits themselves. The grocery stores were promoting their Thanksgiving ranges online for delivery, and the butcher didn’t laugh this time when I cautiously broached the subject of a turkey in November. I spotted Thanksgiving recipes in the newspapers, and restaurants with no American affiliation whatsoever were offering Thanksgiving dinners, too. American food—long derided for its lack of sophistication—was now “in.”
All the same, I soon realized that I would need to give some menu guidelines for the potluck dinner for our friends hailing from Johannesburg and Leeds. The conversations went something along these lines:
“Hmm, no, leafy green vegetables don’t have much of a place on the Thanksgiving menu….”
“Yes, it’s a bit like a Shabbat dinner…but with turkey!”
“If the recipe calls for an orange-colored root vegetable, you’re on the right track.”
“Well, chocolate doesn’t have a big role in Thanksgiving, but that dessert really does sound great!”
Yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about how to give this imported holiday any meaning for our kids (especially considering its spin-doctored history). I could see that my older son was somewhat baffled: Why was I was so excited about this huge meal, featuring foods he had never even heard of? Unlike me, he had never cut out paper feathers for an “Indian” headdress and chunky black buckles for Pilgrim shoes, or looked for the word cornucopia in a word search at school in the countdown to the four-day holiday weekend. He didn’t have a clue about the Thanksgiving Day Parade or college football. Perhaps that was the gap I was trying to close.
Over the course of each year, our gatherings for Jewish festivals, Friday night dinners and Shabbat lunches, and (of course) birthdays, show the kids pretty clearly that we value spending time with family and friends. Living in a city full of expats and immigrants, embracing those events has made me feel more at home—and part of a community—in my adopted country. But adding Thanksgiving to the list lets me share a little bit more of my own history with our boys, even if they remain eternally suspicious of pumpkin pie.