by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow
December 02, 2014
Thanksgiving is the quintessentially American holiday and you can’t say you’ve experienced what America is all about until you’ve spent Thanksgiving with a local family.
Most Americans cherish Thanksgiving as one of the few secular holidays that haven’t been hijacked by consumerism, although I think that claim is debatable given that Thanksgiving is the prelude to Black Friday and a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death in 2008 by a horde of crazy shoppers.
Then there’s the Native Americans who claim, quite rightly, that they’ve got no reason to celebrate because Thanksgiving marked the beginning of their extinction and their eventual confinement in Indian reservations. For them, the historical origins of Thanksgiving is inextricably linked to slavery and colonization.
While all of this might be true, Thanksgiving, for most Americans, is an opportunity to share a delicious meal with family and friends. Some will even travel across the country to visit relatives that they don’t get to see for the rest of the year.
I had the privilege of spending Thanksgiving in Philadelphia with a wonderful Guatemalan- American family: Marikler Girón, her husband Eric Toensmeier, and baby Daniel, who traveled from Holyoke, Massachusetts, Eric’s mom, Anne Toensmeier, Eric’s brother and sister-in-law, their son Isaac, and about other 20 friends and relatives.
Cambridge is wonderful but its vibrant student life and sophisticated soirées are hardly representative of what life is like for most ordinary Americans. Cambridge is a bubble. It’s Disneyland. And so is New York with its glamour and its Sex and the City lifestyle.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, feels real. It’s a city that was hit hard by the global economic crisis of 2008 and its rows of derelict factories are a sad reminder of better and more prosperous times.
In places like Philadelphia you’ll meet ordinary, hard-working people who worry about their mortgage and about the exorbitantly high cost of medical insurance and university tuition fees. They’re people who will welcome you with open arms and when they say “it was nice to meet you”, they actually mean it.
Eric made me laugh when he said that you can’t have a proper Thanksgiving Day if you don’t go into “a food coma” the next day. No kidding. I think the Toensmeiers made enough food to feed the entire neighborhood. Faithful to tradition, Eric’s brother roasted and carved a huge turkey and the sight of its crispy brown skin almost made me regret being a vegetarian. We also had mashed potatoes, turkey stuffing, a delicious kale and beet salad, a green bean salad and a fantastic choice of puddings: pumpkin pie, apple pie, and home baked cookies.
Having a kid is a great excuse for adults to do all sorts of fun things, so on Friday we took baby Daniel to Philadelphia Zoo. It was freezing cold but we all had a great time.
The next day, I said goodbye to my wonderful hosts and I returned to Holyoke with Marikler, Eric and Daniel. During our journey we stopped at Hartford, Connecticut, to buy Mexican food for dinner.
Hartford has a large Latino community and the shopping mall where we stopped has a Mexican stall that sells tacos, enchiladas and images of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I’m talking about proper spicy enchiladas here, the real deal, not Tex-Mex stuff.
While I was waiting to be served, I looked around me, taking in every detail of this little piece of Mexico. A poster on the wall inviting people to attend “La Gran Fiesta de Thanksgiving” caught my eye and made me smile. Apparently, immigrant communities have found their own, unique way of celebrating Thanksgiving. For Americans, Thanksgiving means roast turkey. For the Mexican community it means a huge party with rancheras, tequila and dancing. Anthropologists would call that syncretism.
I guess in the end Thanksgiving is what you make of it. For me, it means feeling grateful for having wonderful friends who were kind enough to invite me to their home, for having a mom who will travel all the way from Europe to spend Christmas with me, for having a job that I love, and for this amazing fellowship. Sometimes I feel life has given me more than I deserve.