Americans often complain that the Thanksgiving holiday gets squeezed out by the Christmas rush.
But here in Switzerland, there isn’t any rush, because there isn’t any Thanksgiving. And it feels like there’s a bit of an empty hole. It’s mid-November and we are already in the middle of Christmas right now, and it will continue until the end of the year.
St. Nicholas, it seems, comes in stages, wandering around and showing up at different times and places, spreading goodwill and mirth. And that’s okay by me – I’m glad the Swiss haven’t adopted our holiday, like they have with their washed-out version of Halloween.
And I like that Thanksgiving is primarily American, because nowadays, in our global world, true regional customs are becoming rare.
I will miss the holiday and it’s clear, no-nonsense theme. To me, Christmas is a time for family and Thanksgiving is for the idea of family – for whatever happens to feel, and fit, and come together like family. It’s about blood relatives or not – friends, lovers, neighbors, co-workers, anybody you want to include in your celebration.
Growing up, with my dad as an Episcopal minister, our holiday gathering was often extended to others outside of the family circle, most we had never even met before.They were usually folks who didn’t have a lot of support.
I remember the year Dad invited a young woman who was pregnant and preparing to give her baby up for adoption, and wasn’t allowed to come back home.
And another year, he received authorization to have a few prisoners who were serving time, released for the evening. I didn’t think too much about it, except to observe that they must not get a lot to eat in lock-up, judging by the way they tucked into the marshmallow-sweet-potato bake.
But mostly Dad invited single people – the shy organist from church, widowers who were adrift, people without family in our community. And we always made room for that one unattached person who came every year, even when she wasn’t invited, and drank too much wine. It was usually a lively mashup.
And, of course there were the temporary chairs my sisters and I reserved for our boyfriends who came and ate, year after year, but were discarded afterwards – skimmed off like the fat off the gravy.
To us, Thanksgiving was the perfect opportunity to try these relationships out, to see if they could make it to the dessert course. To see if they, literally, brought anything unique and interesting to the table – like the convicts did. But being held up next to those guys, or compared to the handsome, bestselling author who had also been invited, they probably didn’t stand a chance, anyway.
Maybe it was unfair, I don’t know.
My mother made it all work by being incredibly flexible, even if the motley guest list was configured at the very last minute. And she had no reservations about whomever was brought into the rectory, law abiding or not.
I think she considered it a challenge. She wanted everything to be perfect, but it was more about the food and decorating and the state of the house, rather than how the guests might, or might not, gel.
She was a gracious hostess, putting on an elegant meal with candles and fine china, flowers and the old silver. And everyone, including the guys from jail, had miniature Russell Stover chocolate turkeys at their place settings, along with name cards that I had calligraphed by hand.
I don’t really remember them commenting on them, but I can imagine how those special details made them feel, how welcome they must have felt. And for me, I thought the night was so much richer, more interesting and unusual, having them present.
I learned a lot from those gatherings. I learned that, even though people might have dramatically different backgrounds, it was still pretty easy to talk to them at the dinner table. And I learned that the dining table could be a great equalizer, a place where everyone was welcomed into the discussion, and everyone’s voice mattered.
But it wasn’t until years later, that I realized what a rare thing those Thanksgivings were, how they helped shape my sense of the world.
Another lesson I learned early on, was that Thanksgiving was a good time to explore other people’s traditions. In college, being too far away to come home for the holiday break, I usually went home with a friend. One year, it was to Utica, New York, with my friend Beverly.
She introduced me to her large, Polish family, her younger rough-and-tumble brothers, and her warm, close-knit, rambunctious clan. We didn’t have Dad’s eucharistic meditation prior to carving the turkey, but it was a big-hearted night, with a completely different flavor. It was loud, and fun, and everybody was in everybody’s face, and I loved it.
Another year, I went with my husband to Connecticut, to stay with his grandmother. It was a lovely retirement community, and she was certainly gracious, but I knew she didn’t like me, and I didn’t feel welcome.
On the first morning, she informed everyone that she had seen me with her grandson on the couch in the living room, the night before, which was untrue. I was mortified. I’m not denying that we were sleeping together at that time, but I would never have been inconsiderate like that in her home.
But then, shortly after that, she was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s, and now the whole memory just feels like something sad that happened to someone else, a long time ago.
I also spent Thanksgiving with my maternal grandparents, the last holiday I ever celebrated with both of them.
My grandmother was so dear, using all of the silver that my Gramp had lovingly polished the day before. With her homemade cranberry sauce and stuffing, she painstakingly assembled the entire meal. But immediately afterwards, even before dessert, they were both nodding off at the big mahogany table, while I washed up the greasy dishes.
I wish I had inherited some of my mom’s ease in entertaining, like my sisters did. Unfortunately, I’m more the type to stay up the night before, worrying that someone might get their feelings hurt, or just that the conversation will die and people will be texting and itching to leave before the pie is served.
That it will be boring, lacking in good conversation and laughter, without the all-important, indefinable sparkle that makes it memorable. I know my expectations are unrealistic, but you can understand why.
Last year at our house, it was the first time without Mom. Dad was with us, and it felt unfamiliar, like a tight pair of new jeans that would take a bit of wearing to stretch to fit. But he was so gracious, helping out, admiring all of my table decorations, and I was just so grateful.
And Katherine’s boyfriend was there and he kept the conversation lively and interesting, talking politics and discussing a new biography of Lyndon Johnson. And Lewis was fresh from surfing naked on couches, so that made for good material.
And I remember the rare feeling I had that night, sitting in the glow of candlelight, watching the shadows fall across the table, and how everyone’s eyes softened and flickered, as they laughed.
And reflecting on how easily the kindling had caught and the conversation was snapping and crackling.The chores were done and I could just sit back and relax into the warmth of the moment.
Because it’s wonderful to discover how, when you assemble an unlikely group, most of the work is already done for you. And it occurred to me that night, that Mom was on to something.
She knew that having only the immediate, dysfunctional family around the table, year after year, just created internal combustion. Things needed to be aired out – you had to have a few wild cards.
And I like to think that Thanksgiving is also the time we can coexist in spite of our political differences, opinions and biases. Because each of us brings them to the table. But it’s the perfect setting to let them ride, to just say, please pass the gravy, and for us to simply enjoy the fellowship.
And every year we bring the new changes and transitions from our lives – divorces and deaths, break-ups and ongoing struggles. And yet, we can still sidle up to the buffet, elbow-to-elbow, anyway, and feel a little less alone.
And, even though it might not be easy to feel grateful, with all of that going on, we can maybe just try to let some of it go.
So I know that’s the part I’ll miss the most this year, just the getting together part. In our tiny flat, we won’t have to squeeze card tables together or check on the turkey, I won’t have to fuss with the gravy, or struggle with cleaning up.
And I won’t have the worry and stress of managing the family dynamics, none of that – it’ll be a cinch. Thanksgiving will feel boiled down to its true essence, to the act of saying thank you and being grateful for all of you, my family and friends, across the ocean.
But I will miss the gathering, the drama between the bites of stuffing, the way my dad’s laugh turns slightly evil when he gets to cackling so hard. The way he and my husband tease each other about who has lost the most hair.
And my daughter’s cute way of eating pie with a huge tower of whipped cream.
And the way my son quietly takes it all in, every sweet morsel. And how, maybe in some fashion, he’s recording all of it, writing it in his mind, preserving it, just like I used to do.
I admit I still hate to think of my kids being shuffled off to sit at some one else’s table this year, orphaned to another family’s tradition. I’ll try to visualize them enjoying their cameo roles. Katherine is such an appreciative listener. And naked couch surfing simply has no shelf life.
And, even though the kids won’t be at home this year, their Thanksgiving will contain the only ingredient that’s necessary – simply being included and made to feel welcome, even special. Even if it’s last-minute. And even if they bring a new boyfriend.
And I know they will both be extremely grateful for the serendipity, the grace, in coming together as one big family at the table. And they’ll be so thankful for the turkey and the conversation, the laughter and the pumpkin pie – and all of the unexpected, juicy stuff in between.