Last week, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, nominally a holiday commemorating the partnership between newly arrived Europeans in North America and their Native American neighbours. In practice, Thanksgiving is an exercise in community, rich foods like turkey and pie, and American football.
We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK or Bangladesh, for obvious reasons. Despite my having lived in the US my entire adult life, 16 years now, Thanksgiving still feels like an artificial holiday to me. Perhaps it’s because so many wonderful friends have hosted me over the years that I haven’t absorbed any one set of traditions as my own.
Even though I was part of my ex-husband’s family for 9 years, I didn’t quite internalize his family’s traditions, mostly because between his job as a soldier and his father’s as a firefighter, we rarely celebrated holidays together. Instead, we used the cold weather season as an excuse to visit Washington and Oregon and made the most of visiting as many relatives as we could fit into a trip.
Last year, my daughters spent Thanksgiving with their father and I was alone. I elected to volunteer at Operation Turkey, an Austin opportunity to share the food of the season with the less fortunate. There was little point in roasting a turkey for one, so I made turkey cutlets, took a long bath and folded laundry after I was done volunteering.
This year was be different. Not only do I have the children, but this is my first Thanksgiving since I became a US citizen. We volunteered together to feed the homeless, cooked together and ate together. I’m trying to create traditions for my daughters, foreign though they may feel to me. When they are grown, I want J and M to have warm feelings of safety and comfort when they smell turkey and taste pumpkin pie. I want them to know viscerally how much they are loved and have the language, in words, deeds and foods, to pass that love on to the people they love.
My mother prided herself on being an iconoclast, and one of the ways in which she did this was to avoid all traditional modes of celebration. When my extended family gathered to celebrate the Muslim holidays of Eid, my nuclear family rented movies and stayed home. She wasn’t a total Grinch. Instead of family members getting new clothes on Eid, we gave clothing to the poor. We donated the money to purchase a cow for sacrifice to my aunt, and she’d arrange for the meat to be distributed among the hungry. Having no Eid traditions I could realistically exercise–we donate year-round–I confess that I’m rarely aware of Eid until I see greetings pop up on Facebook. I want my kids to have traditions.
Part of me expected this Thanksgiving to feel different, for my certificate of citizenship to have bestowed upon me a feeling of belonging in this all-American holiday. That’s not how it works, though.
My job as a parent, immigrant or otherwise, is to give my children a sense of place within their family, regardless of where we live. I do it by celebrating the holidays of my host country, as did my parents before me. My other immigrant cousins do it by celebrating the traditions of the old country of Bangladesh. Our goals are the same, though, to anchor our children in a sense of family and belonging.