Thanksgiving is one of the most important American holidays, “a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year”. The history of Thanksgiving in the United States dates back to 1621 when the pilgrims who came over from England and landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts celebrated their first successful harvest with the native Americans. Although that feast was technically the first Thanksgiving, it became an annual celebration only much later. In 1941, Thanksgiving was made a federal holiday and fixed to the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving is often said to be an even more important family celebration than Christmas, and the eagerness to get families together really shows at the airports and roads: Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Sunday after it are the busiest travel days of the entire year.
Many people have asked me if this was my first Thanksgiving. Actually this was already my third one in the US. Additionally I had an opportunity to join a terrific Thanksgiving meal cooked by a friend from New York in Helsinki a few years ago. My first Thanksgiving took place in San Francisco already in 2002 when I was on my way home after an exchange semester in New Zealand. I had never been to the US before, and only while reading Lonely Planet on a flight from Fidzi did I realize that due to crossing the dateline I would actually arrive in the US on the Thanksgiving Day. So, as it happens, I got my first turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce meal with my Thanksgiving rookie friends from New Zealand and Australia only a few hours after immigration. How legendary! A sadder memory of that evening was seeing numerous homeless people sleeping on the otherwise totally deserted streets while we walked back to the hotel.
In 2007, I visited an expat friend of mine in Los Angeles. We drove down to San Diego for Thanksgiving. McCormick & Schmicks was one of the few places that was open. I remember most vividly their amazing pumpkin and pecan pies, as well as the crazy Black Friday shopping adventure that followed the dinner. An outlet mall in San Ysidro by the Mexican border opened at midnight. When we arrived, the parking lot was so full that we could not find legal parking. What we thought was a creative solution turned out not to have pleased the officials, as when we returned to the car at 5am with our catch, the car had been towed away! Several additional creative ideas were needed before we were happily reunited with the car, including hanging out at a 24h Walmart for a few hours to stay warm. Somehow we sorted it all out, even despite the fact that my friend had forgotten her driving license and all of the car’s documents at the hotel, meaning that we only had the car keys to prove that the car belonged to us. This is how memories are made, I guess, and this is how I learnt what a fire lane is…
This time I started the Thanksgiving Day by waking up ridiculously early to participate in a turkey trot in the sunny but chilly November morning. Turkey trots are fun runs/walks that are held on or around Thanksgiving Day to raise funds for local charities and to burn off calories in the anticipation of indulgent Thanksgiving feasts. When I heard about this tradition, it was a no-brainer to sign-up. In DC, the turkey trot is organized by SOME (So Others Might Eat), an interfaith, community-based organization that provides the poor and homeless of the city with food, clothing, and health care. In addition to being my first turkey trot, SOME’s 12th Annual Thanksgiving Day Trot for Hunger 5K also got to be my first race on this continent. It felt great to run, even more so for a good cause, and chasing fellow participants dressed as turkeys was unforgettable.
Being curious to see and learn how the fundraising practicalities were organized was a big part of my motivation to take part in the event. I wanted to collect new ideas for similar events in Finland. This year there were ~10,000 participants, and a total of nearly $0.5 million was raised. The registration fee was $30-$35 per person. Most of the additional funds must have been raised through personalized Turkey Trot websites that were set up for each participant/team as a part of the registration process. SOME also listed a few additional fundraising tips, and encouraged participants to share tips with each other on social media. Naturally sponsors were in a crucial role in the event, too. The list of sponsors was impressive, indeed.
After recovering from the morning run and completing a surprisingly hassle-free cooking operation, it was time to head to my “second home” for a Thanksgiving dinner – or Friendsgiving, as it was called in this case. Although Thanksgiving is primarily a family celebration, there are always Thanksgiving orphans who are too far away from family to join them or choose to stay in DC for other reasons. My friends welcomed me to join a special dinner where a group of orphans gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving together. We even had “foster parents” as a friend’s parents were visiting from Ohio and joined the dinner.
Saying grace before starting the dinner was exactly like in a movie, and then it was time to dig into the food. The super tasty turkey was the star of the meal, of course. Additionally, there was (at least) mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, barbecue chicken, pork chops, stuffed mushrooms, deviled eggs, dinner rolls, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and apple quinoa pudding, my new signature dish. For dessert, we had a classic pumpkin pie, an apple crumble pie, a blackberry pie, a frozen sweetheart cake, and ultimate killer brownies. What a feast! Everything was so delicious that I am sure the calorie intake must have exceeded the number of calories burned during the 5K run big time, maybe 10 times?
The non-food related highlights of the Friendsgiving evening included hearing funny childhood stories shared by the “foster parents”, learning about the goals and activities of Peacecorps, and playing Catch Phrase. Catch Phrase is a word guessing game that resembles Taboo, as well as Alias that used to be hugely popular in Finland. Catch Phrase is even more intense than Alias, though, due to the constantly beeping electronic timer that the player who is giving the clues has to hold until the team mates guess the right answer. Only then can the player pass the timer on to the opponents. Teams take turns until the time is out, and the team that is not in the possession of the timer when that happens gets a point. Such a simple concept, so much laughter, and a great way for me to learn new English phrases!