Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali. These were the holidays that were familiar to me. Thanksgiving didn’t even exist in Singapore, it was something merely seen in American movies or sitcoms like Friends when the whole gang would come together for a meal with turkey, lots of turkey. I had no preconceptions about it, and now, my first year in college in the U.S., I was able to celebrate my first thanksgiving.
Doing some research into the history, it all started when the Pilgrims arrived in America in 1620. A terrible winter was about to begin. The Pilgrims neither had the means nor the knowledge to survive the winter, but some native Americans taught them how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees and catch fish. In 1621, the Pilgrims first harvest proved successful and to celebrate surviving the harsh winter, so they feasted and called it the “First Thanksgiving”. It was two centuries later when President Abraham Lincoln decreed it a national holiday in 1863, to be celebrated every last Thursday of November.
In present times, it is just a season for families to gather and give thanks, to some it’s all about the postlude crazy sale of great bargains and deals, for others, this is merely the preparation for the grander festivity that is Christmas.
But my family is back home, 15,602km away. What is thanksgiving in a home with people I don’t know? Neither did I have my Monica, Ross or Phoebe equivalents…
I only had Elie.
Elie is a friend from Wheaton who lived five minutes from campus, and it had been an impromptu invitation the day before when she discovered I had no plans for thanksgiving. Alas my first true-blue American thanksgiving experience! At 1 pm the next day, the rain failed miserably in suppressing my excitement. After ringing the doorbell, I was quickly invited into Ellie’s dry and comfortable abode with curious faces peering at me. This curiosity quickly turned to warm invitation as her parents and grandparents shot their hands to welcome me.
Her family had driven in from Ohio and Pennsylvania to be at this lunch; her grandparents drove down from Ohio, her brother from Pennsylvania, and her aunt and uncle from South Illinois. Twenty-one of us circled the long table decorated with a linen cloth and plating and silverware. Bible verses of God’s provision and our calling to give thanks were scribbled on fall-colored paper leaves. An apple carved in the shape of a turkey nestled among these leaves. We joined hands to say grace.
It was then buffet-style to get the turkey. Conversation quickly broke out about our various lives. Sharing about our past, which presented new knowledge of our cross-cultural background that gave us better understanding of each others present. That feel-good warm fuzzy you feel when you’re able to engage in blessed conversation soon stirred in my chest and ignited a happiness that spread through my veins. Dave, Ellie’s father, lived in my hometown Singapore and worked there for two years. Steve, the friendly neighbor who prepared the turkey, born in Iran, lived in Pakistan and moved to Amsterdam, where his three daughters were born. Louis, Steve’s youngest daughter, who rejected my offer to be best friends because I couldn’t speak Dutch.
During the meal, we took turns to share what we were thankful for. As for me, I was thankful for the open invitation from Ellie, and for friends and family back home whom texted me regularly knowing that I was homesick. Sometimes we forget what an honor it is to give thanks in itself that there are things we can praise God for.
In that moment, I forgot all my homesickness and my brain teleported me back home to where I was with my family. The same warmth and familiarity, the same happiness and laughter shared over a meal, the same fuzzy feeling that made my heart overflow with gratitude. It’s not the occasion that matters, but rather the fellowship.
How funny it is when Ellie’s family were people I was preparing to meet in the future a few days ago, and quickly since meeting, I got to be part of their past, and they part of mine, but in that moment of having the meal, I got to share their present. And that is the greatest present of all.
I looked outside, it was still raining. But the warmth that this family provided made my first Thanksgiving nothing short of beautiful.