Thanksgiving: A unique holiday for a uniquely diverse nation

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters

By Lou Baldwin

Thanksgiving really mean to you? Is it just a really big dinner, or is there
something more about it that maybe you’ve forgotten?

It is unique among American
holidays in that it is both civic and religious in its origins. It is unlike
Christmas and Easter which are, strictly speaking, religious holy days that
were adopted by the general culture as holidays, or Independence Day which is completely

There is a bit of controversy as
to where the holiday began. New Englanders say it was started as a harvest
feast attended by both settlers and Native Americans in thanksgiving for the Plymouth
colony’s first harvest. Virginians point to celebrations a bit earlier in Berkley
Hundred and Jamestown.

In both cases there was reason
to be thankful and not just for food but for being alive. Within a year of
their arrival half of the New England colonists were dead as were three quarters
of the original Virginia colonists, either from starvation or disease.

Of all American holidays,
Thanksgiving is a celebration of immigrants because it traces back to our
immigrant forefathers and foremothers who at great sacrifice laid the
foundation of a new nation.

The tradition continues as recent
immigrants also pause to thank God for his blessings and enjoy a feast usually
including that peculiar American fowl, a turkey.

Lan-Huong Lam, a member of the
Vietnamese community at South Philadelphia’s St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, has been
in America for 10 years. Although her family still celebrates traditional
Vietnamese holidays, especially for the New Year, they also have embraced
Thanksgiving in a way that is strikingly American.

“My family will come to my father’s
house this year, (and) next year we will all go to my uncle’s house,” she told, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

And yes, they will have dishes
such as turkey and mashed potatoes, but along with that they will have
traditional Vietnamese foods for those members who prefer them.

Reyna Mota, who is a member of
the Dominican Republic community that worships at St. Leo Church in
Philadelphia, really buys into the true meaning of Thanksgiving as a way to give
thanks to God and celebrate our blessings.

While she and her husband are
immigrants, “our kids were born here,” she said. Like many other Americans new
or old, she and her husband and children were hitting the road to travel to
Salisbury, Maryland, for an extended family get-together.

The traditional turkey,
cranberry sauce and all the fixings will be on the table as well as chicken
because turkey is not something their family is used to. Of course, one of the
desserts will be flan, a staple in Central America.

If a number of the relatives
prefer chicken it had better be more than one bird because “we will have about
30 people there,” Mota said.

Samuel Abu, a Liberian native who
works for Philadelphia’s archdiocesan Catholic Social Services, is a member of
Divine Mercy Parish in West Philadelphia and he has 12 years in the U.S.

Thanksgiving is a national
holiday in Liberia also, probably because the country was founded by former American
slaves who returned to Africa after the Civil War. But it is just a day off
there, with no special traditions. He was surprised when he came to the U.S. and
found what a big deal it is here.

“When we came here we didn’t
like turkey,” he confessed, and his family would go out to eat. Now he and his
wife have four kids and they all love turkey.

Abu’s wife loves to prepare the
Thanksgiving dinner, and in that tradition the whole family gathers around the
table for the feast. But in his household they don’t do stuffing and they eat
the turkey in gravy as in a stew.

Another dish they favor which
most Americans would not connect with Thanksgiving is the root vegetable that
is much more familiar in the tropics than the potato: cassava.

But whatever they eat or don’t
eat, “We are thankful to God that we are able to live this life and pray for
the families who are not able to do this, especially my father and my mother,”
Abu said. “We thank God for our jobs and our children and the opportunity to
own our home.”

Hari Chan, who has been in
America for 15 years, is a member of the Indonesian community that worships at
St. Thomas Aquinas Parish. On Thanksgiving his family will probably gather for
Mass in the chapel at their parish.

Then the Indonesian community members
will all get together at the adjacent Aquinas Center for a potluck meal. It will
include turkey of course, but also Indonesian favorites.

While they don’t have Thanksgiving
in Indonesia there are other holidays, mostly Muslim, because most Indonesians are
Muslim. But just as in America where non-Christians celebrate Christmas, “there
we celebrate the Muslim holidays too,” Chan said.

Maguy Jean Baptiste is part of the
Haitian community at St. Cyril Parish in East Lansdowne and she has made America
her home for 10 years. People do eat turkey in Haiti Jan. 1, which is both New
Year’s Day and Independence Day, she said.

As in so many American households
on Thanksgiving Day, her sons will watch football, something that is not played
in Haiti.

It will be a big meal because
not just her husband and their five kids but also her sister’s family with four
kids will gather around the table. As an extra she always invites someone from
the neighborhood who is alone for the holiday.

As part of the festivities the
family members will draw names for gifts for the Pollyanna at Christmas. Also
the family will take up a collection to send back to Haiti to help their
struggling families there.

Maria Alvin, a member of Our
Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Southampton, was born in Portugal but her family
came to America when she was 7, and now she is married with a family of her

“My parents are still alive and
we will all get together at my house,” she said. “There will be about 12 people.”
It will be a traditional turkey dinner, but since her dad still doesn’t like
turkey, she will probably prepare a chicken and maybe some pork.

“Thanksgiving means freedom, the
family all getting together, being thankful for what you have,” she said.

A member of the French-speaking community
at St. Cyprian Parish in Philadelphia named Dosse came to America 13 years ago from Togo. He and his
wife have three kids, all born in the USA

In Togo the main holidays are
Christmas and New Year’s Day, but other than that there are no holidays with a long
weekend. Dosse and his family will celebrate the same way many other people here

Most important, he told, “Thanksgiving is the time to thank God for everything, for his
support in our lives.”

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Baldwin writes for, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

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