In Western Europe, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Lower Germany, people celebrate a holiday before Christmas that is almost as big of a deal as Christmas itself: Saint Nicholas Day, or Sinterklaas. On the eve of 6 December, children leave out a shoe in which they place sugar cubes and a carrot—gifts for Saint Nick’s horse. Saint Nick, the story goes, rides his white horse on our roofs, sending his helpers down chimneys of well-behaved children, rewarding them for their good behavior. When the children wake up, the carrot and sugar cubes are gone and replaced by presents which, in many families, carry more significance than Christmas gifts. We never celebrated Saint Nick’s ourselves of course—we were Jewish, not Catholics—except for one year in kindergarten, when I made enough of a fuss about other children getting presents that my parents, playing along, got me an electric Disney-themed toothbrush.
The American holiday season is already overcrowded as it is, without adding Saint Nick’s to the plate. Here, the first awkward family encounter of the season is reserved for the last Thursday of November rather than 25 December. Feasting tables laid out with roast meat, gravy, and heaps of mashed potatoes are not only features of a yearly Christmas gathering but twice-repeated rituals in the span of a month before New Year’s Eve. And Thanksgiving lasts forever. While Saint Nick’s is a children’s holiday that slowly disappears as kids grow older and realize who really swaps their carrots and sugar cubes for the latest videogame, Thanksgiving remains central to American family life—you don’t grow out of it. It’s one of the only weekends for which most workers receive time off; one of the only days of the year businesses close shop in the city that never sleeps; one of the only periods when Amazon Prime deliveries may not be delivered within a 24-hour window. It is also a rare time of peace and quiet for a freshly immigrated European roaming the streets of New York.
The morning of Thursday, 25 November was one of the iciest since I moved to the US. Crisp, clear and cold: perfect winter weather. I walked up an almost car-free Third Avenue riveted by this toned-down version of New York City, stripped of everyone and everything—students, honking cars, available Ubers, delivery vans, builders—except native New Yorkers and international migrants like myself. After struggling to find a bodega that was both open and selling the spices I needed to prepare my contribution (roast vegetables, an essential component) to a carefully planned Friendsgiving meal I was invited to that night, I returned home and started to cook.
That night, I carry my three serving plates of roast vegetables—a colorful mix of roast brussels sprouts, carrots, zucchini, parsnip, and sweet potatoes—down four flights of stairs and into an Uber (overpriced due to low supply on this almost universal night off) to my friend’s house in Brooklyn.
Our much-anticipated Friendsgiving involves a twelve-person guestlist—I am the last to arrive. 12 freshly immigrated souls, left behind by their American peers who all (well, almost all) traveled home for the first time since summer. Our table is festive, though make-shift. The twelve chairs consist of a slightly awkward if charming collection of garden furniture and office chairs. Two sets of cutlery, wine and water glasses, and a fridge over-stuffed with the food the guests have brought. The cutlery is plastic to render our clean-up hassle-free. Bailey’s hot chocolate is served in paper cups to get us in the holiday spirit. We sit down, a collection of graduate students hailing from countries as diverse as Hungary, France, India, Belgium, and Singapore. The 12-pound turkey, which one of the organizers ordered weeks ago, before all Thanksgiving services would run out, is ready after four long hours of roasting. “Anyone volunteer to cut the turkey?” asks our hostess as she takes the 12-pound bird out of the oven. Desperation seeps into her voice as she asks again: “Anyone?! Please, I already had to stuff it this morning and let me tell you, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” I volunteer—and of course, because I am an amateur, with no prior training, experience, or history of Thanksgiving feasts, I butcher it. Embarrassed, I serve up barely recognizable chunks of turkey onto 11 paper plates (one girl is vegetarian.)
Finally, I sit down. I’m about to lift the first mouthful of turkey into my mouth when the vegetarian exclaims: “Wait!! Aren’t we supposed to say thanks?? Let’s go around the table!” Everyone stops eating. We stare at each other. Clearly, no one knows how this works. Are we just meant to say thanks and move on? After a moment of hesitation, the vegetarian girl sets the tone, thanking our mutual friend for hosting. We follow her lead.
This feels… unnatural. Are we saying Grace? It feels almost Christian—even though Thanksgiving is not a Christian holiday, and half the people at our table aren’t, either.
What’s next? I glance at my neighbors. All I have to compare this to is the Jewish holiday meals my family and I have shared for as long as I can remember. Most Jewish holidays center around passing history down to the next generation. From Torah-prescribed High Holidays like Passover to lighter, less explicitly Biblical holidays like Hanukkah or Purim, there is almost always an element of storytelling involved. Applying this to our Thanksgiving meal, I can’t help but wonder—should we talk about the meaning of this holiday? Its origins? Should we acknowledge its historical revisionism? Take a minute to recognize that some First Nation tribes consider this a day of mourning?
We don’t. Instead, I clumsily yet honestly thank my parents for giving me the life and opportunities they have, including my being in New York this year. I cringe at how cheesy I sound, though I really do mean it. We move on to the next person. The moment passes. Once I’ve tasted the perfectly roasted—though haphazardly shaped—turkey, I quickly forget my questions and doubts. I pour myself another glass of wine into a new plastic cup—I lost my original one—and listen to my friends reflect on how different these traditions are from anything they are used to. The twelve people sitting around our table work constantly to adopt new customs, understand strange habits, and recognize peculiar patterns of behavior. They do so by copying and imitating them until they are no longer new, strange, or peculiar. For all of us, the past few months have been a time of discovering, replicating, and constantly assessing what words, food, values to retain; what phrases, conventions, strategies to reject. It’s what my parents did when they bought me a Saint Nick’s gift, and it’s what I’ve been doing since I landed in New York four months ago. It’s exhausting, exhilarating, heart-warming. It’s a Thanksgiving dinner.