International Student Blog

Holidays abroad: Thanksgiving

For a long time I was a bit of a grinch when it came to the holidays. As I got older, though, I started to appreciate them more. Now they are a way for me to honor the seasons, and a reason to gather loved-ones together to celebrate. What happens, then, when you move 4,418 miles away from your friends, family, community, and the culture that you grew up in? Well… you “wing it:, I guess (sorry, turkey pun, this blog is about Thanksgiving). So, on the off-chance that you have not had American culture foisted upon you to the Nth degree and you were itching to know the details of a Thanksgiving Day Fest, here’s my introduction to American Thanksgiving.


Thanksgiving is always held the fourth Thursday of November. In fact in 1941 the US Congress passed a law stating as much.Why? Well, it’s America… it has to do with money (sigh).

In 1789, President Washington declared a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin,” on Thurs. Nov. 26. Following presidents determined the dates for Thanksgiving, and it was celebrated on different days and even in different months (how did they not have better things to do than decide on Holiday dates?!) until 1863 when President Lincoln set the standard of the last Thursday in November.

As you may be aware, sometimes there are 5 Thursdays in November. This happened in 1933, and again in 1939, Roosevelt was president both times, and both time business owners pushed for the holiday to be held a week early (on the fourth Thursday of the month) in order to allow for what? That’s right, more shoppin’ days before Christmas! Roosevelt gave into this request in 1939 and ever since, Thanksgiving has been the fourth Thursday of the month. Not exactly a compelling story of capitalism at its best.


Black Friday, the big shopping day (to prepare for Christmas) directly after Thanksgiving. Image:

Debated first Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is celebrated primarily in the US and Canada, although some other countries celebrate it as well (Canada does not celebrate on the same day as American, and other countries likely do not either). It is historically a day of celebration of the harvest. There is debate about the first celebrations of Thanksgiving in the US, some argue that Spanish explorers had it in Texas (1598), others believe it was in the Virginia Colony. or even that the earliest Thanksgiving in the (current) borders of the US was celebrated in Florida (1565) by the Spanish.


The dark underbelly of Thanksgiving

The history of the origins of Thanksgiving is quite dark, and, while I knew it wasn’t the cheerful story of friendship between Pilgrims and Indians that I was fed as a child, I don’t think I realized quite how disturbing the violent displacement was of the native people who inhabited what is now the US. So much so that I’ve decided to separate it into its own blog post, where I can muse more on the possible ramifications of celebrating a holiday that has such roots and if it can ethically be separated from its historical context.

Video: (note there are problematic portrayals within the children’s’ “re-enactment”)

But for todays post, if it’s possible, I’d like to focus on the holiday as a piece of American in the context of an opportunity to acknowledge the fall season, to gather with a community of loved-ones, and to have a celebration of gratitude, and – of course this is all expressed with what? Well, with food. Of course.


Current “traditional” Thanksgiving foods don’t necessarily have much to do with the foods that were consumed in the past, which may have included, “corn soup, succotash, white fish, red meat, various fowl (turkey, partridge, duck), berries (including whole cranberries), maple sugar candies, corn starch candy (believe it or not, candy corn is almost authentic except for the colored dyes), watercress, any kind of bean (red, black, green, pinto), [and] squash.” (I’m surprised to learn that candy corn is almost authentic. Do you know what candy corn is? If not, click here.)



Here’s the lowdown on current traditional Thanksgiving foods with links to recipes in case you feel the need to join in the gluttony:


Is so vital to Thanksgiving, it is often referred to as “Turkey Day”. If you don’t know already, turkey is (according to google’s definition)  “a large mainly domesticated game bird native to North America, having a bald head and (in the male) red wattles”.





This bird is, essentially, what makes Thanksgiving Thanksgiving – it is the main course of the meal for non-vegetarian Americans.

Thanksgiving Dinner


and beyond…

Apparently there is a fair amount of regionalism when it comes to the side dishes that go along with the Turkey centerpiece. But, seeing as this is my blog, I will share what was typical in my experience:


Yes, these are generally a part of the Thankgiving feast, and while people like me may get excited for them, they do not tend to get the spotlight in the average American Thanksgiving (sadly). So, while there may be a salad, peas and carrots, or a side of green beans, you’d have to invite a weird-beard like me to end up with, say, a delicious massaged kale salad, and some roasted brussels sprouts.



Biscuits or rolls



Honestly it was usually rolls when I was growing up. Too bad, as biscuits are delicious (by this I refer to American-style buttermilk biscuits), but really, in the carb-fest that is Thanksgiving, you don’t really need biscuits… or rolls… because there’s:


Mashed Potatoes!



Yes, more carbohydrates. Mashed potatoes and butter, salt ‘n pepper – simple, but delicious. Too many carbohydrates, you think? Well, too bad – there’s also:




I have to admit, I do not eat stuffing (a mixture of breadcrumbs and seasoning that is stuffed into a turkey before it is cooked), I do not understand the point of it and I find the texture unpalatable, but I am, in many ways, an atypical American. Many people dig it.

Cranberry Sauce



Don’t worry, there’s not only carbohydrates, there are also simple sugars 😉 – I have to admit, cranberry sauce is another Thanksgiving classic I never really got behind. Speaking of which…

Yams or some sort of disgusting yam concoction



Don’t get me wrong, I love a roasted yam. But some of the ‘classic’ American yam recipes have marshmallows in them! Why?? I hear you, you’re thinking, logically, no self-respecting people would eat that much sugar for ‘dinner’. In other words, “that’s dessert, right?”. Well, you may be logical, but you are wrong. Dessert is yet to come…

Pumpkin Pie

Perhaps the most classic of Thanksgiving desserts, pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream usually makes an appearance at Thanksgiving celebrations.  Apple pie, pecan pie and chocolate cream pie may be among other desserts that join the fray. It’s a pie-heavy event.


So, now that you’re armed with the component parts and recipes for Thanksgiving, you can always go forth and create one yourself, even if it’s just an excuse to gather your friends together.

In closing, I just want to reach out to my fellow international students – if you are missing a holiday that’s unique to your culture because you’re here – consider sharing it with your community here (whether or not you have a community of your own country(wo)men – share it with everybody). I know that I love to learn more about other cultures, and one great way to do it is through the food, festivities, and cultural eccentricities of a celebration-day. And, if they have a dark underbelly (like Thanksgiving does), maybe that’s also an opportunity for an open dialogue and a chance to learn from other cultures’ mistakes.

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