Explaining Thanksgiving to Europeans

Americans know the story of how Native Americans saved Pilgrims from starvation back in 1620 by teaching them to tap maple trees, plant corn and fertilize soil, but I have been trying to explain Thanksgiving to Europeans for decades. They remain bewildered by our Thanksgiving, a journée de remerciements. They think it is the only day of the year where Americans prepare a hot meal and eat slow food.

Decades ago when I moved to Europe, I was a pilgrim at the mercy of my French teammates who taught me their language and customs.

A year later, I became indebted to German friends who shared their homes and meals. Accepted by marriage into my French family, adopted into Swiss culture where I now live, I have always been a guest in someone else’s country.

Yet I remain loyal to my roots. Though every feast I have prepared has been a fiasco, Thanksgivings with my Franco American family has always been sacred.

“Are any European celebrations similar to Thanksgiving,” I once asked my husband. He looked at me incredulous.

“Of course not,” he said. “Native Americans are the only people on the planet gracious enough to thank their conquerors.”

No matter what the circumstances or who shows up at the table, T-day is one tradition I cherish.

My first year abroad I invited French teammates to dinner and much to my chagrin they ate the meal in courses, one dish at a time. The next year in Germany, the team turnout was so great, there was standing room only; we never sat down to dine.

When I introduced the custom to my French family, my mother-in-law served raw oysters first and insisted a turkey was too big; chicken would suffice.

If left to their own devices, Europeans could butcher our day of thanks.

What American celebrates Thanksgiving by eating an seven-course meal standing up? Who replaces Tom Turkey with Chicken Little to eliminate leftovers? Leftovers are Thanksgiving.

Born in the Land of Lincoln, I consider it my patriotic duty to give thanks on the fourth Thursday of the month, the day Abe appointed as a national holiday in 1863 when he gave gratitude for an instrumental Union Army victory at Gettsyburg.

Expats everywhere create their own special ties to their heritage.

When my Norwegian grandfather immigrated to America, he insisted on keeping the Norwegian tradition of eating lutefisk and lingonberry on Christmas Eve.

“My dad brought strangers home to dinner,” my mom said. “He’d say ‘so many people helped me when I arrived in the United States, I want to return the favor.’”

Every Thanksgiving, I gather family, friends and “foreigners” in a feast honoring my Norwegian ancestors, my American homeland and my host country. To avoid offending guests, I whisper thanks to the Great Spirit who watches over all of us regardless of our religious, national, or ethic affinity.

Apparently, like our Native American friends, she sees the good in man, even in the conquistador.

Posted in family, food, humor, relationships.


  1. Keep up the tradition, Pat. My family certainly enjoyed those few years when we were able to share this great American tradition together. Your resident chef would provide the turkey and mine would take care of the potatoes and gravy. I would provide the pies and a good time was had by all. Still very thankful for the friendship we shared then and the one we continue to enjoy now even though there are many miles between us.

    • Oh Tinie I still have such happy memories of the holidays we shared together – Thanksgiving was always the best. I can still remember your cute little pumpkin shaped napkin holders, your fine wine and the feelings of gratitude and goodwill you inspired in everyone who joined around your table.

  2. Pat, I think being flexible is key! I recall one Thanksgiving, early in my marriage, when my in-laws served all kinds of foods that were traditional for them on the East Coast but way odd to my Southern heritage. I was crushed!! And there were no leftovers, which I was secretly glad of, ha! Somehow, we make do, don’t we? I love the idea of keeping the tradition alive, no matter where you live. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    • You are so right, Debbie. Flexibility is key to any family gathering as you meld together different habits, customs and dishes. Bet that was the first and last time you regretted the lack of left overs. ha Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. Pat, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Unfortunately , it is glossed over in favor of Christmas. It takes a concerted effort to keep the tradition going and bravo to you for keeping it alive across the ocean, despite the cultural divide. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • I can just imagine the Thanksgiving feast at your table with fresh products right from your own farm. Here’s wishing you the happiest Thanksgiving and a bountiful table filled with blessings.

  4. I’ve never had the chance to live abroad, but living in several different parts of the United States was enough of a culture shock. I was fascinated by how each of your host countries considered Thanksgiving in their minds, the French especially.

    • Alana, so interesting that you mentioned the culture shock of living in different parts of the US, which is true here that every region has its own customs and specialties. What were some of the special Thanksgiving dishes served in other parts of the US? I know that corn was always on the menu in my family, but then again we grew up in the Corn Belt, so I guess that is understandable.

  5. Pat, my son has prepared a Thanksgiving feast every year since he’s lived abroad. He invites friends of all nationalities and it has become a welcome tradition. It amazes me that he can produce so much from his tiny kitchen!

    • I can just imagine the dexterity it takes your son to whip up a feast in a kitchen the size of a phone booth, like ours, but what a wonderful way to share the Thanksgiving message around the world.

  6. Oh, I can relate. I am the worst cook. I spent hours making a special carrot dish. When the feast was over, 95% of it still sat in the baking dish. I brought it home, dumped it in the trash, and threw away the recipe. Sigh.

    • Oh no Lynne, you sound like me. Of course, I no longer even attempt new recipes. How can I possibly compete in the kitchen when I live with a French chef?

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