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Question of the Week: Finding Holiday Traditions Part 1

In honor of Thanksgiving, this week's Question of the Week was about holidays. We asked what it's like to celebrate American holidays, like Thanksgiving, in the States, and this post (part 1) is all about Thanksgiving and how to find your own meaning in a holiday that feels so American.

We also wanted to know what holiday traditions from home you would miss the most if you came to study in the U.S. Part 2 looks at what it's like to be far from friends, family and your own holiday traditions.

Celebrating American Holidays

Nick writes:
Four years ago, during my exchange year at a high school in America, I stayed with an American family. This was my entry way to an amazing experience with the American holidays. My host family celebrates quite extensively in most major holidays such as Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas. I can never forget the eagerness from all the egg-hunters in the family on Easter day, or the delicious Thanksgiving meal my host mom had planned for weeks, or the dazzling Christmas tree whose base was covered with gift-boxes. I was swayed, not by the iridescence of the holidays but rather by the joyful spiritualism that transcends into the fun and happiness everyone experiences. Most importantly, I love how the holidays pull family members together to spend time with each other, marking the happiest moments of their lives.

Since Thanksgiving is one of those family-centered holidays, I don’t feel any spirit this year. I do celebrate Thanksgiving in some way though, perhaps internally as I keep reminding myself to be grateful for what I have, for a so-far successful semester, for the support from my family, for my great friends, for St. Johns’ College…

On the bright note, I am going to a Thanksgiving party organized by the college’s president and I am going to literally stuff myself."

If you study in the U.S., one way or another you will come into contact with Thanksgiving. It’s one of the biggest holidays of the year for Americans, so you don’t need to join the celebrations for it to infringe on your life.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade by mdpNY on Flickr

One Thanksgiving, Princeton University's Associate Dean of Admissions Terri Riendeau found some international students wandering around campus. She related the experience to the Daily Princetonian in 2005:
‘”They were starving,” she recalled. “They hadn’t eaten in probably 24 hours.” Having grown up outside the United States, the students – from Bulgaria, Cyprus and Slovakia – hadn’t realized that most stores and restaurants would be closed over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Thanksgiving can be a tricky holiday for international students. It’s easy to feel like an outsider or a voyeur in the American tradition. As Nareg writes, “Especially my first year in the States, I found it very strange to be celebrating Thanksgiving. It seemed like such an American thing – a historical commemoration in which I had no part to play…”

Getting into Thanksgiving

But international students don't need to spend their American Thanksgivings starving alone in the dorms. Many schools will host official Thanksgiving dinners for international students. Some even cater to the specific dietary needs of international students, who may not be interested in the traditional turkey and stuffing. At Princeton, since 1/3 of the students who attend are vegetarian, the international students Thanksgiving dinner has been meat-free (except the turkey, of course!), and included Indian vegetarian food as well.

Tara writes, "USC [The University of Southern California] does a good job of helping international students be immersed well in America culture by matching students to local families and holding a free Thanksgiving dinner for international students. I went to the dinner with some Chinese students last Friday, and the American turkey tasted really good!!"

[Read an LA Times article about USC's Thanksgiving traditions]

By Spudgunner on Flickr:

In addition, many American families are eager to invite stragglers over to their Thanksgiving dinners. Zimbabwean student Paidamoyo Chikate spent the holiday with a friend's family last year, according to Diocese of Saint Cloud:
She recalls the mashed potatoes and green beans she ate last Thanksgiving with her friend’s family in a suburb of the Twin Cities. She said her mother makes mashed potatoes and green beans often back home. Chikate also enjoyed being around her friend’s family members, who represented a variety of ages. she said.

“Because of everyone coming together and having family time, I felt like I was at home.”

Finding Your Own Meaning

And while celebrating Thanksgiving can feel odd at first, many international students, like Chikate, have ended up finding their own meaning in the American holiday.

"I don't know much about the holiday, but I've seen the traditional turkey dinner in movies, and I'm really looking forward to that. We don't really eat turkey in China, mainly just chicken, beef and pork." – Chinese Michigan State University student Baiyu Peng in The Standard

“The first thing I noticed about Thanksgiving is that there seems to be a shift in gears, slowing down and taking more time with each other. What I don't understand is why this coming together happens just once a year." – Saudi Arabian University of North Alabama student Naelh Alzain in The Times Daily

"If you're not American, it's not your holiday," said Ragnhild Lunnan '09, who is from Norway. "It's just nice to have two days off." – Norwegian Princeton University student Ragnhild Lunnan, in the Daily Princetonian

Nareg writes:
I come from a close-knit family, and perhaps especially because I am currently away from them, I’ve found real beauty in the togetherness and fellowship that forms a big part of the Thanksgiving holiday.

I’ve been blessed with being invited over for Thanksgiving meals for the past few years. Last year I had the great pleasure of spending a few days in the state of Georgia, with a family of partly-Armenian roots. It was wonderful to really feel like a part of a home, as well as to explore the South for a little bit. What a beautiful part of the country! And the fact that Thanksgiving was the occasion for such a memorable time has slowly begun to render that holiday into an annual reminder and re-enforcer of very positive ideals, such as friendship and caring.

[Read Nareg's full post on celebrating American holidays for the first time]