SYDNEY, Australia -- “Everything I know about Thanksgiving comes from American sitcoms,” Chilean Picho Sepulveda tells me. “There’s always a Thanksgiving episode, a special one where something really big and exciting happens.”
It’s Sepulveda’s first Thanksgiving, though neither of us lives in the United States, and he’s expecting something out of “Friends.” I’ve invited him and nearly two dozen other expatriates from various countries to my apartment in Sydney for a taste of Turkey Day Down Under.
Cramped in a small living room in one of Sydney’s rougher neighborhoods is one long table full of Chileans, Colombians, Irish, French, Australians and Indians. Aside from the two other Americans in the room (my support team), it’s nearly everyone’s first Thanksgiving, and there’s a buzz of curiosity in the far-too-humid Australian air.
“Do you typically invite your Native American friends over for Thanksgiving,” Sepulveda asks, looking around the room at the eclectic crowd. I laugh aloud, wondering what sitcoms he’s seen, but struggle to find an earnest answer to the question.
“Well, no,” I admit, adding that I don’t have any close friends who are full-blooded Native American. “I certainly have a few who claim some Native American ancestry,” I say, “but growing up on the East Coast -- the coast from which European settlers sent the Native Americans headed westward on a Trail of Tears -- I can’t say that I’ve ever had any Native Americans sitting at the dinner table with my mom and dad.”
Sepulveda isn’t the only one who’s pieced together a somewhat amusing idea of the holiday based on what he’s seen on TV. An Irish guest, Kerri Cahill, explains that she knows exactly what Thanksgiving is thanks to “Addams Family Values.”
In the 1993 classic, Wednesday Addams causes a stir during a summer camp re-enactment of the First Thanksgiving when, playing the role of Pocahontas (who most certainly did not make the trip up to Plymouth from Jamestown for Thanksgiving), she deviates from her scripted lines and says this to the Pilgrims instead:
“We cannot break bread with you. You have taken the land, which is rightfully ours. Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the roadsides, and you will play golf and enjoy hot hors d’oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts.”
The young Addams tells the crowd that the gods of her tribe have spoken, urging her not to trust the Pilgrims. She then instructs the rest of the kids dressed as Native Americans to scalp the Pilgrims and burn their village to the ground.
For Cahill, this is the story of Thanksgiving. My Irish housemate Patrice O’Regan sees it in a similar light. After days of fretting over our little house party, perfecting her stuffing recipe, and questioning me on the meaning of Thanksgiving, she tells me that she finally figured out what the holiday is about: Irony.
“Irony?” I ask, confused.
“Of course,” she explains. “Thanksgiving is a pretty ironic holiday if you think about it. The Pilgrims came to America and then the native Indians shared their food. Isn’t it ironic that the same people came back and killed them.”
Overhearing the conversation, New Delhi native Rishi Joshi chimes in to point out that he is, in fact, a true native Indian. This prompts a brief conversation on the use of words like Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal, indigenous and the like, after which I tell O’Regan that, despite her talk of “native Indians” and save a few oversimplifications of the historical record, she has a point.
The event commonly referred to as the “First Thanksgiving” took place in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621 after the Pilgrim’s first harvest in the New World. It was a feast that supposedly lasted three days and brought together 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. There’s no denying what happened to the Native Americans at the hands of European settlers in the ensuing years, but I try to explain that Thanksgiving is meant to be a celebration of a moment of mutual friendship, however fleeting that moment may have been.
I later realize that it’s a common misconception among many of my guests that Americans celebrate Thanksgiving as some sort of defeat of the Native Americans (and that we dress up in Pilgrim and Native American costumes at the dinner table). “It has something to do with a war, right?” one guest from Australia asks. Another asks: “Isn’t it when the Americans killed off all the native people?”
To this, I can’t help but reply: “Why would we celebrate that?”
But perhaps the holiday is riddled with irony. Perhaps those like Dan Brook, sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, have a point when they question whether Americans are “thankful for forgetting their own history, for having collective cultural and political amnesia.”
I explain that what Thanksgiving was and what it is now are two separate things. Like most holidays, the traditions built up around Thanksgiving now define it more than the actual event we’re meant to celebrate. It’s football, dog shows, parades and shopping deals. It’s charity and giving thanks. And surely taking one day out of the year to appreciate what you’ve got and to help others in need can’t be such a bad thing?
“For most people, Thanksgiving is really about the food,” I suggest before gathering the hodgepodge group at my makeshift table for a “traditional” Thanksgiving feast. As we pass around the various items it becomes abundantly clear that one dish in particular has everyone perplexed. It’s the new topic of conversation: Sweet potato casserole topped with toasted marshmallows.
“Potatoes and marshmallows,” the Irish wonder aloud, shooting glances at each other from across the table. My American compatriots assure the crowd that this dish, perhaps more than any other, is the one that we look forward to every year. “To me, this tastes like my dead Grandma,” American Megan Snedden announces, though her remarks serve up yet another dose of curiosity.
Despite the apprehension, the sweet potato casserole is the first gone and a clear favorite. Other well-loved classics on the table include mashed potatoes, sweet corn, cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese, stuffing, cornbread, pumpkin pie, apple pie, and a few bowls of pebre, a Chilean salsa. Despite strict rules on keeping the holiday traditional, one of the Chileans was adamant that everyone would want salsa on their turkey.
We’ve also got Indian Masala chai tea, some Nordic ligonberry jam and English custard. For this deviance in tradition I am reluctant but ultimately thankful. After all, I may have misled the room with a tradition of my own.
I wanted everyone to grasp the Thanksgiving I had grown to love, the one that’s spelled out in the holiday’s name, and I couldn’t think of any better way than to force a room full of adults to make hand turkeys (the construction paper cutouts every American kid brought home in kindergarten).
All guests had to write a message on the middle of their hand turkey about what they were thankful for, and reading the responses later that night, I realize that most left with an appreciation of Thanksgiving’s more subtle charms.
As Thanksgiving dinner morphs into late night party, a French couple turns the table around on me. “So what did you learn about Thanksgiving today?” they ask.
The question takes me aback. I had spent the whole night asking everyone else what they thought of the holiday, all while defending my own traditions and codifying my country’s inconvenient histories.
“I always thought that I knew exactly what Thanksgiving was,” I tell them. “I thought it was about family and food and getting fat. About drinking too much wine and learning family secrets. Maybe it still is. But after hosting Thanksgiving abroad, I’m starting to think that I have absolutely no idea.”
When your family is 10,000 miles away and there are no parades, football games and Black Friday deals, what are you left with? When you carve Thanksgiving down to its bare bones, there are really two holidays you can choose to find: The one of the carcass or the one of the wishbone.