Monday 26 January 2015

It's time for Thanksgiving

Dinner's served: president George Bush serves US troops in Iraq their Thanksgiving turkey, while below, Declan Byrnes-Enoch celebrates with friends in Ireland
Dinner's served: president George Bush serves US troops in Iraq their Thanksgiving turkey, while below, Declan Byrnes-Enoch celebrates with friends in Ireland

Christmas comes but once a year, so the poem goes -- but the next best thing is having Thanksgiving a month before, which is the case for Americans today.

In homes throughout the States, as the first snow of the season begins to descend, young businessmen will complete the long drive back to their family of birth, college kids will wait impatiently for the appropriate hour to visit their childhood friends, and later on in the day, tables will be set with the usual meal of turkey, cranberry stuffing and mashed potatoes, plus pumpkin pie for dessert.

"Thanksgiving for me is all about the food and family," says Kelly Arnold, 36. "I come from a large, close-knit family where I'm the youngest of 10, and two of my sisters were married to brothers so Thanksgiving was a huge deal in our house."

"One of my favourite traditions was that we went around the huge table and said what we were thankful for that year. It was an opportunity to get laughs, but more for being heartfelt and genuine."

Kelly and her husband Christopher moved to Dublin from the States in June to "revinvent themselves", she says, but they're both preparing to feel the pinch on being without her family for the first time.

"We lived in Florida away from my parents for 10 years," she explains. "Thankfully that allowed us to have a transition period where there were a few friends and family with us, so it's taken the edge off being alone in Dublin."

But she's certainly not alone -- there are approximately 45,000 expat Americans celebrating their biggest national holiday in Ireland today. Many are students who will celebrate it with the American contingent in their colleges, others might be here temporarily for work, in an American company that has organised a post-work Thanksgiving dinner.

For Sue Callaghan, 52, it's a tradition which hasn't lost importance despite her 32 years in Ireland. She moved from Buffalo after she met her Irish husband during a trip to Scotland -- "we went to find the Loch Ness monster but we found each other," she beams. The first two Thanksgivings -- or Turkey Days -- away from home were particularly difficult.

"I certainly felt isolated from my family; it was a terribly lonely day. On the first year, I plonked a chicken on the table and answered my husband's quizzical look with, 'It's Thanksgiving. Humour me'."

It's a simple mistake to make; there's a default belief that Western cultures are by and large the same. It's certainly not the case today, where most of us this side of the pond wonder what the point is of having two massive turkey-and-TV days so close to each other.

But Sue's found that over the course of her time here, Ireland's become more knowledgeable about the annual event, which takes place on the fourth Thursday of November.

"Back in the '70s when I first came, no one really knew what it was despite plenty of people having relatives across the Atlantic. But recently the landscape's changed: there are American programmes and TV channels which has helped to bring the culture over.

"They've even started to learn about its history in a local school, which shows you how far Ireland's come in such a short space of time."

What the teachers will explain is that the holiday dates back to 1621, the year after pilgrims arrived in Boston. After a rough winter, in which about half of them died, they turned for help to neighbouring Indians, who taught them how to plant corn and catch eels.

"There were never less than 14 people over for dinner, which we'd have after the football had finished. There would be an adults' table and a kids' table, and it was the biggest deal in the world to be upgraded."

For Declan Byrnes-Enoch, 22, the memories are still fresh since he has only lived here for three years. To him, the joy was less about the history than the present customs. "We don't get much time off from work -- there's no statutory holiday time and even with Christmas it's rare to have two days off. But at Thanksgiving, people would be off work on the Thursday and Friday, so everyone would make the journey back home.

"My family are half-Jewish anyway so we wouldn't really celebrate Christmas. That's common in the States -- Christmas is secular, but everyone celebrates Thanksgiving. It's the only true American holiday.

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