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MIT student blogger Laura N. '09

American culture at its finest: Thanksgiving by Laura N. '09

How my family celebrates the holiday. Plus a crash course in U.S. culture for internationals.

The fourth Thursday of November and the few days before and after are typically the biggest travel days in the U.S. Why? Because that day (today!) is Thanksgiving day, which is a BIG DEAL in the U.S. Considering the size of our international audience, I thought I might take a few minutes to explain why.

Thanksgiving is when Americans gather together with their families to take part in a few time-honored traditions: huge, home cooked meals centered around a turkey, football (the American kind, not actually played with your feet), and preparation for the holiday season.

I just watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, another staple of the holiday. Apparently (according to Wikipedia, anyway) the parade began back in the 20s because a large number of Macy’s employees were new immigrants who were eager to embrace American traditions. (You learn something new every day.) Macy’s is a huge department store, the main branch of which is located on 34th street in New York City. (Hence the movie title.) In fact, I just passed Macy’s on Tuesday night- the bus I take drops me off at Penn Station, right across the street from the famous store. So back in the 20s, a bunch of Macy’s employees put together a big parade with balloons, floats, and animals from the Central Park Petting Zoo, and a great American tradition was born. Ever since its first incarnation, the parade ends with the entrance of Santa Claus- the official ringing in of the holiday season. (In fact, before Thanksgiving was officially encoded as the 4th Thursday in November, presidents during lean times attempted to move the holiday earlier in the year to increase the length of the shopping season. I really need to read less Wikipedia.)

At my house, Thanksgiving morning is pretty lax. While delicious cooking happens in the kitchen, the TV in the living room is left on channel 4 (NBC) which broadcasts the parade every year. My mom and/or sister and I take breaks from preparing some food to bring to my grandparents’ house to catch snippets of the parade on TV. We never sit down and watch the whole thing, but everyone makes sure to catch the very end, when Santa makes his appearance.

But before the climactic end, the parade features marching bands from across the country, floats with famous performers singing and dancing to holiday tunes, and huge balloons of characters from all arenas of pop culture: books (the Cat in the Hat, Clifford the Big Red Dog), TV shows (Kermit the frog), movies (Buzz Lightyear), toys (Mr. Potato Head), and even commercials (the Energizer Bunny, the M&Ms characters.) And a fun fact: apparently, engineering students from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ volunteer at the parade by inflating the balloons and using their physics knowledge to train the handlers in keeping the balloons under control. I almost went there, and I never knew that!

After my family enjoys the parade, we head to my grandparents’ house with as many of my mom’s sibilings as can make it (my mom’s sisters both live nearby, but her 2 brothers live out of state and only make it back to Jersey every couple of years for important family events) for a traditional dinner: turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and all sorts of other autumn foods. Not only that, but my grandmother actually works in a bakery, so the pies and cookies are always top-notch (and in oversupply, normally).

My extended family is huge, so we almost never have a formal sit-down dinner like you see on TV. All sorts of food is set out and everyone grabs what they want and finds a place around the house to sit down and enjoy. As for the football: the TV in the background is set to the football game, and after we’ve digested a bit, we head outside for a family match. A few years ago, when we had a larger crowd than usual thanks to my uncle and his family flying in from Utah, my mom actually borrowed pinnies from the basketball team she coaches so we could have proper teams. It can get pretty intense.

This is my family playing football a few Thanksgivings ago. We pick teams after dinner, and the winners take pride in rubbing victory in the face of the losing team for an entire year. I’m not kidding. It’s a big deal.

The story behind the first Thanksgiving goes as follows: the pilgrims who landed in Massachusetts had no idea what they were doing. They were totally unprepared for New England winters and certainly wouldn’t have made it through the first few years without the help of the Native Americans in the area who taught them how to fish and hunt local game, which crops to plant, and generally how to survive on the terrain. To express their thanks, the pilgrims and the Native Americans held a big feast together to celebrate a successful harvest.

But every story has two sides. If it seems a little bogus to you that one of the biggest, most culturally important holidays in the U.S. celebrates the help of an indigenous population which we’ve historically, to put it mildly, treated very poorly, you’re not alone. The United American Indians of New England agree with you, and since 1970 they’ve staged a protest on Thanksgiving Day (called the National Day of Mourning) in Plymouth, Massachusetts- the site of the original Thanksgiving to protest the “myth” of the First Thanksgiving (because we all know the story wasn’t that simple, and the way we celebrate the holiday now almost certainly bears very little resemblance to the original) and the even bigger myth of cooperation between the natives and the settlers.

I think that’s a pretty comprehensive overview of the holiday. Enjoy your turkey, your protests, or your ordinary autumn day- whatever is in store for you.

29 responses to “American culture at its finest: Thanksgiving”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A very nice post, Laura! I think it taught International students as well as American a few things about the holiday. smile

  2. Anonymous says:

    I love your writing style!!

  3. Ashwath says:

    Festivals are fun because you get holidays! In my city, we’re getting days off because it’s raining heavily smile

  4. hamsi says:

    wiki is pure genius.

  5. 3ntropy says:

    To quote my Biology teacher: “If you really want to celebrate the spirit of Thanksgiving, You’ll kill your neighbors, take their land, steal their food, destroy their resources and desecrate their ancestors’ graves looking for gold.”

    But hey, I get turkey and a week off, so…

  6. Arfa says:

    Great post, I love Thanksgiving, except at my house it ends up being a feast of Pakistani food but with the addition of mashed potatoes, rolls, and corn, but that’s what’s so great about the holiday, everyone has their own traditions.

  7. Anonymous says:

    American holidays are great like that. Our culture is so new, no one really cares if you take a “tradition” and make it your own. Props to you!

  8. Cam says:

    Laura, worth mentioning is this special Thanksgiving 2008 gem: . I didn’t catch it live myself, but some friends were kind enough to link me to this.

    Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

  9. Vytautas says:

    We all may now thank Laura for reading wikipedia for us internationals.

    Thank you Laura!

  10. Dear Sirs

    I am Ali Faramarzpour an Iranian student. Because of various educational problems in Iranian universities I don’t intend to continue my educations in Iran . I am an inventor and have different plans in different areas amongst them is a house which has special conditions. This house is made in a way that can change its form & environments that is in conditions of using this house one can use all of its volume and in case of its transmission from one place to another it can be folded and transmit it to another point. From among other usages of this house is that it can be used as an auxiliary accommodation and a simple house for students and other people looking for temporary accommodation and in case of events such as floods and earthquakes and etc it is highly usable. It also has the capability of providing its electrical energy through sunny cells. It also can be claimed that this mobile and drawer house is the smallest in the world. The technology used in this house is unique in its kind.

    Therefore I am interested in receiving acceptance in building engineering and related courses in that university and since I can’t afford paying all the educational expenses I’d like to receive scholarship from your university.


    Ali Framarzpour

  11. Steph says:

    Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

  12. Cathy says:

    This year I’ve been so busy that I spent my entire Thanksgiving Day forgetting all about it! (until my friend reminded me at like 11pm — I’m situated to the west of the international date line at the moment, so that was yesterday…)

    I can’t believe that I did that with Halloween, too ! i actually FORGOT ABOUT Halloween!! (OMG!)

    I’ve definitely been away from the US for WAY TOO long — time to go home…


  13. Monorina says:

    Happy Thanksgiving!
    I know both sides(protestors and celebrators) of the thanksgiving story but for me it’s another day of study about Bengali(my mother-tongue, in which I cannot get ONE spelling right. I swear, the day I learn how to write Bengali I’ll be out on the streets, distributing sweets to people in celebration)

  14. Banerjee says:

    Speaking of turkeys, a really random question just popped into my head: are pets allowed in the dorms? Say, for example, if I have a turtle, will I be allowed to keep it in my dorm room?

    Sorry, I did read your post though… all of it. And I really enjoyed it.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Is cranberry sauce sweet or spicy?

  16. Tiffany says:

    The cranberry sauce I get out of a can is tangy. Anyways playing football would be better than watching football this Thanksgiving. One word: steamrolled.

  17. Ooohh it’s so sweet of you to remember about us internationals.

    Anyway, I enjoy reading your posts a lot. I’ll hate it when you graduate and quit blogging.

    Happy thanksgiving.

  18. Vytautas says:

    Uhm… I just thought of a question.
    Is it possible to get in as an international transfer?(I know we’re allowed to apply, but what’s the admission rate and stuff????) And if yes, is it possible to be a freshman after a transfer?w

  19. sally says:

    @ Banerjee

    Most dorms only allow fish. Though some dorms allow fish & cats.

  20. Tiffany says:

    @anonymous: I disagree. Thanksgiving celebrates the joint effort of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, not idk William Bradford or the chief. And Disney has always taught that we should rely on those around us. Cinderella had her mice friends and her fairy godmother, Madagascar 2 emphasized the bond between the lion and the zebra, and so on.
    Whereas the east has created all these epics where a hero overcomes all odds and emerges victorious. And though this hero may sometimes rely on others, he (and it’s nearly always a he) relies most on himself.

  21. Banerjee says:

    @ Sally:

    Fish and cats don’t make a good combo, but thanks for answering!!

    How come you can’t keep turtles if you can keep fish? I mean, they’re both kept in tanks.

  22. Banerjee says:

    @ Sally:

    Fish and cats don’t make a good combo, but thanks for answering!!

    How come you can’t keep turtles if you can keep fish? I mean, they’re both kept in tanks.

  23. liuzhengpeng says:

    I think that different countries hold different culture;With the development of globalization,we should reconsider the subject!

  24. Anonymous says:

    I do my utmost to analyse the two kinds; The west emphasize personal heroism; On the other hand ,the east put much place on collectivism .

  25. Mollie says:

    Banerjee, I had a friend who had a turtle in her dorm room at MIT.

  26. Adrian says:

    Yay for football! I’m pretty much the only tall/thin person in my “family” (the only extended family that I feel truly close to is my puerto rican godparents and their friends and family) and being un-strong and un-bulky means that getting tackled hurts. Our team lost by 2 touchdowns, but I did manage to get an interception and 3 catches. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday thanks to having such a great family.