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Immigrants Re-Interpret America's Thanksgiving Celebration

Americans often date the nation's annual Thanksgiving holiday back to a feast held nearly 400 years ago, when English settlers in what is now Massachusetts gathered together to thank God for their successful harvest and for the freedoms and opportunities available in what they called "the new world." Today, new settlers to America are celebrating their own versions of Thanksgiving, as they also give thanks for food, freedom and opportunity.

Chinese American Wan-Lee Chen opens her Thanksgiving meal with a prayer. "Dear Lord," she says. "Thank you so much for bringing our family and friends together, so we all can share the happiness of this special night. We all thank you for bringing all the good days in the past. We're looking forward to having a better future. Amen."

Ms. Chen remembers her first Thanksgiving, more than 15 years ago, as an amazing experience. She was an exchange student, and her American host family invited her to join their Thanksgiving dinner. "I had never had any Thanksgiving before I came to it was a very striking experience for me," she says. "First, everybody around the table held hands. I had never been holding hands with a lot of so-called foreigners. They said prayers. It was a very warm feeling, when all the family came together. I was part of their family. To me, it was the first time I learned that Thanksgiving is about family."

Enjoying the company of family and friends also appeals to Manal Ezat, a 40-year-old Egyptian American. "It's a good chance for us to get together and create our own second family away from our original families," he says. "And it's an opportunity of course to thank God for all the blessings He has provided us with here, in our homes and with our families."

Celebrating Thanksgiving is one of the American traditions Zeba Khadom says she adopted when she emigrated from Afghanistan more than 20 years ago. "It means a lot to me," she says, "because I was raised in a society which is very traditional, and in a family that believes in good traditions. Traditions make the society stronger. I like Thanksgiving because this is the time that people can sit together and share ideas."

For Haitian American Ronald Cesar, attending worship services is an important part of Thanksgiving Day. "We go to a church service on that day because this is one of the most cherished holidays for us Haitian Americans," he says. "Remember, we come from a troubled land. Haiti always has some kind of political problems, one after another. And here we are in this homeland, benefiting from all the freedoms this country has to offer, all the opportunities."

America's traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes dishes like mashed potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and, of course, the centerpiece, roast turkey. Immigrants from different ethnic backgrounds say the menu is easy to both prepare and combine with recipes from their native cuisine.

"Usually we cook turkey," says Judite Desrusseaux, Ronald Cesar's wife and, like him, a Haitian American. "I prepare it the American way. The only thing I add is my own spice, the Haitian spice." Other immigrant families make more significant changes. "I like fish, shrimp or lobster on top of the traditional Thanksgiving menu," says Chinese American Wan-Lee Chen. To make Thanksgiving dinner for her family, Egyptian immigrant Manal Ezat says, "I start with the turkey, the stuffing, and the trimmings and of course add our basic rice dish that always has to be on the table." Afghan American Zeba Khadom creates a menu that would have astounded the settlers in 17th century Massachusetts. " I cook Afghani food like qabli palau, mantoo, and sabze chalou," she says, "besides the turkey and other things."

One of America's most prominent chefs and cooking instructors, Jill Prescott, believes there is something about Thanksgiving dinner that makes it appealing to people of all ethnic groups. "It's very adaptable because everybody, I think, loves poultry," she says. "Potatoes and poultry are very universal. People have their own adaptation of how to do the turkey and the stuffing is very universal as well. And it's that wonderful diversity about this country that allows us to have those extra wonderful recipes." The ritual of eating together, she says--just like saying prayers at Thanksgiving dinner--is an important expression of gratitude for the opportunity to enjoy the good harvest and the good company.