Expat Life

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Like most kids who grew up in the western world, I spent the first decade and a half of my life looking forward to two dates – my birthday and Christmas. I could try and convince you this was because I loved getting together with family, and in the case of my birthday, because I enjoyed having the spotlight fully on me (okay, it was partly this), but the truth is, I was all about the gifts. I was a greedy little thing who would start making my wish list months before each holiday, and thanks to generous parents and family, I was spoiled rotten every time. But somewhere around my late teens, something started shifting. Maybe it was because I was growing up, or maybe it was because I was just beginning to adopt the anti-things mind set I still proudly possess today, but suddenly I wasn’t looking forward to the gift-giving holidays in the same way I had before. Instead, I began to fall in love with a new holiday.

American Thanksgiving, for those who may not be familiar, has been historically celebrated in our country as a day to give thanks for one’s blessings. In the case of the very first Thanksgiving, a famous feast shared between the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621, it was a way for the Pilgrims to give thanks for their survival during the early days of colonization and to thank those who had been the reason they survived – the Native Americans. These days, while few of us probably spend much time on the day thinking about how the holiday began, many of the traditions that were created on that first Thanksgiving day remain the same. Thanksgiving is still a holiday centered around giving thanks for all of the good things we’ve been blessed with over the past year, while also enjoying a feast of what I lovingly refer to as “comfort food” prepared by and shared with those we love. Delicious food, togetherness, that cozy feeling that comes from remembering how good we actually have it – that’s pretty much a recipe for a perfect holiday if I’ve ever heard one, and so for the past two decades, Thanksgiving has held the top position on my list of my favorite holidays. (Still followed closely by my birthday, of course.)

Today we are celebrating our fifth Thanksgiving as expats. That’s five years of celebrating a holiday meant to be spent among family and friends, while living apart from said family and friends. While many things have certainly changed about how we celebrate (most notably the lack of familial faces around the table), for several reasons, the Thanksgiving holiday has continued to be the one I look forward to the most throughout the year.

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Photos from Thanksgiving 2015

I like the challenge.

In America, as long as you don’t wait until the last minute, you can head to any grocery store in the country armed with your Thanksgiving recipe list and find it well stocked with everything you need. Half an aisle full of stuffing mixes? Check. Twelve different brands of cranberry sauce to choose from? Check. Need eight pounds of potatoes? No problem.

This is not the case when you live abroad. If you have ever scoured an entire country looking for mini marshmallows for the top of the sweet potato casserole only to have to settle on pink ones shaped like Hello Kitty, you might be an expat. If you have ever had to start planning your Thanksgiving shopping list three months in advance because simple things like green beans could go missing from the grocery store shelves for an entire month, you might be an expat. If your Thanksgiving to-do list includes stopping at six different grocery stores and placing an expensive Amazon order online that may or may not actually show up, you might be an expat.

Prepping for Thanksgiving is not an easy task when the country you live in isn’t celebrating. In some countries, it’s downright impossible. Luckily, with a few omissions and a lot of substitutions, we’ve been able to prepare a pretty decent feast every year that we’ve been living overseas. Not surprisingly, it’s been about 10x more difficult to do here in Singapore, but to tell you the truth, I actually enjoy the challenge of collecting all the ingredients we need, scavenger hunt style. How boring it must be to just drive to one store, find everything you need, and carry it all back home in the trunk of your car. :)

Cooking everything myself is actually super fun.

No really, it is.

Prior to our first Thanksgiving abroad, I’d never cooked a single dish for our family’s Thanksgiving. Traditionally, at least in my family anyway, the matriarchs of the family handle all the Thanksgiving cooking. This meant my grandmothers, my mother, and my aunts were always the ones doing the cooking. If I had any role at all other than enjoying the fruits of their labor, it was to help do the washing up afterwards. That’s it. So my first time actually cooking a Thanksgiving meal was after we moved abroad, when suddenly I became the matriarch of the family. (I don’t like how old that makes me sound.)

Our first two years in London I kept it pretty simple. I attempted 1-2 family recipes, but the rest of our Thanksgiving meal came pretty much ready-made. (Which is to say, and I’m not proud to admit this, we ate canned vegetables.) By our third year I was feeling a little braver in the kitchen and attempted a record three family recipes with great success. Two Thanksgivings later and I’m up to spending a total of 5 hours in the kitchen putting together a meal I’m going to have eaten in under 30 minutes, but I love every minute of it.

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Photos from Thanksgiving 2016

It’s totally laid-back with just three of us.

Let’s be honest, family holidays can be a little stressful. I’m not necessarily talking about family drama, which is actually pretty darn entertaining when it doesn’t have anything to do with you. I’m talking about trying to coordinate the schedules of 30+ people who likely have more than one Thanksgiving celebration to attend that day and then cooking/preparing the house for that many people. I think if you asked my mom or grandmother what the most relaxing part of Thanksgiving was, they’d probably say when everyone went home.

Our Thanksgivings as expats, however? Super relaxing. It’s just the three of us, so if dinner is late, I burn an entire dish of corn pudding, or I decide halfway through I’d rather just go out for Thanksgiving dinner, nobody cares. (FYI, none of those things have ever happened because I am a Thanksgiving rockstar.) After the meal is cooked, we turn on some music and eat at the table (which outside of holidays only happens when we have guests over) and afterwards we pop in the first of what will be many Christmas movies watched over the next few months.

And possibly the best part of having a smaller Thanksgiving celebration? Less people to have to share leftovers with the next day!

It’s the official beginning of the festive season no matter where you are.

In America, Thanksgiving has always marked the official beginning of the holiday season, or at least the socially acceptable beginning to the season anyway. After Thanksgiving, you are free to hang your Christmas lights, hum Christmas carols in the office, and watch cheesy Hallmark specials to your heart’s content without any grumbling from the no-Christmas-before-Thanksgiving crowd. Coincidentally, the last week of November seems to be the universally agreed upon time for the holiday season to kick off everywhere else in the world, too. Or at least that’s been the case everywhere we’ve lived as expats.

In London, the weekend after Thanksgiving was usually when all of the holiday pantomimes would begin and the city would switch on the Christmas lights that had been strung over the streets. In Europe, most Christmas markets open up shop right around this time. And in Singapore, while the city’s decorations went up back on October 1st (don’t get me started), they at least waited until the week before Thanksgiving to start playing Christmas carols in the shops and markets. Despite my indifference to the commercial side of Christmas, I still very much look forward to all other aspects of the festive season and I love that it all begins with my most favorite of holidays, even in countries outside of the US.

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Why Thanksgiving Is Still My Favorite Holiday As An Expat

Photos from Thanksgiving 2017

Our last three Thanksgivings have all been pretty special. While we didn’t know yet that we’d actually be leaving London the following year, we did know that Thanksgiving 2015 would be the last we’d celebrate in our first London flat. (We had made plans to move closer to central London so that Lexie could attend an American school.) I loved our little flat so much, and because I tend to get overly sentimental about these sorts of things, I made it my mission to ensure every “last holiday” we spent there was a memorable one. I got more ambitious in the kitchen that Thanksgiving, and even though I wasn’t blogging back then, I documented the occasion like I was, which is to say I took 100 photographs when 10 would have done. Knowing now that that was actually our last Thanksgiving to ever spend as a family of three in London, I am so grateful for the photographic memories I have of it!

With our surprise move to Singapore the following summer, besides a serious upgrade in natural lighting in our kitchen (the difference it made in these pictures is phenomenal), we also got to reap the benefits of being in an American school system when Thanksgiving rolled around. For the first time in three years, Lexie actually got to stay home from school for the holiday, which meant I didn’t have to spend yet another Thanksgiving day with only my Youtube Christmas carol playlist to keep me company. We had a blast prepping the meal together, and she totally saved my life when I nearly cut my finger off trying to slice through super hard Australian sweet potatoes. The only thing that could have made the holiday better would have been if Cory could have spent the whole day with us, too, which leads me to this year’s Thanksgiving.

After four years of having to work on Thanksgiving day (and the day after as well which is usually a holiday in the States), Cory finally managed to get the whole holiday off this year and, for the first time ever, a man actually helped in the kitchen on Thanksgiving day. Just kidding. (I mean he did, but there have probably been at least 1 or 2 guys before him who have put some effort in on Thanksgiving….maybe.) Except for the unfortunate instance where I forgot we were supposed to peel the sweet potatoes before we chopped them, this Thanksgiving went off without a hitch. (And yes, we had to peel each slice one by one because of that.) Now that we’ve officially passed into holiday season territory, I’m so excited to see what Christmas in Singapore is all about. Last year we headed back to the States for the holidays, so this Christmas will be the first that we actually spend in our new adopted country!

For stories from our first and second Thanksgivings in London, just click on the links! Hope you all have a very happy Thanksgiving!

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  • Happy Thanksgiving Sarah! I love the idea of a holiday of gratitude… and it certainly seems like you’ve got it nailed :)

  • Alicia Johnson Erickson

    Happy Thanksgiving from Ecuador! I’ve made my own pumpkin puree, found green beans and sweet potatoes (at different outdoor markets, of course)…it’s coming together! You have to forget about cranberries (not a can or fresh one to be found)..and in our case Turkey (I’m not paying $12 a pound…crazy), but I’ve seasoned chicken with turkey seasoning.

    • Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

      Well done making your own pumpkin puree and genius idea about the turkey seasoning! How did it turn out? We don’t get much turkey imported here either so we settle for ham, which I like better anyway. :)

  • I can really relate to so much of this – spending now our 6th Thanksgiving abroad :)) Especially the challenge + being the one to make all the dishes for the first time. Now the success of Thanksgiving rests with us! Happy Thanksgiving to you and the family! (Your Singapore flat is so gorgeous, by the way)

    • A very happy Thanksgiving to you guys as well! I hope you had a good one!

      I truly love having so much light and extra space in our Singapore flat, but I still miss our cozy London one equally as much! (Def better views from here, though! Ha!)

  • Romeo

    So funny, I saw the sweet potato cutting and thought…. hmm, they must peel them after blanching or something (the skins would peel right off). put that on your cookbook Topnot. #oldguyswhocook

    • Nope, we just like to make Thanksgiving dinner prep as difficult as possible. ;)

      P.S. Next year I plan to hire a grumpy old guy who can cook to help us out. I’ll send you the application.

      • Romeo

        Send me a ticket to Singapore and I’ll be as grumpy and old as anybody needs.

  • Hi Sarah! I have been meaning to come back to this post to comment. I enjoyed it so much and found myself relating a lot. Last year was our first holiday in Virginia but we had just moved so it wasn’t much. But this year, especially with our son being older, has felt like our first real holiday season here. And after years of driving back and forth between family and longing for a simpler holiday season, I finally have what I had always hoped to experience. Of course it’s hard to be away from family, but I believe I can finally say I get what you were saying about bonding as a family of three. We had such a wonderful low key Thanksgiving. It’s truly about how you make the most of your circumstances. So I appreciate your viewpoint and find encouragement in knowing we aren’t the only ones celebrating these big holidays in a quiet but sweet way.

    • I am so happy to hear you guys are enjoying your first “real” holiday season in your new home. You’re right, it is hard to be apart from family for the big holidays, but there are benefits that help make up for the absence. Less stress and busyness for one. But most importantly, the bonding that occurs within your own family unit when you only have each other to celebrate with. I’m so happy you’ve experienced the same this year. :) In our case, it took moving away to motivate us to create some of our own family traditions, as we tended to just do whatever the rest of our extended family was doing before. That’s been one of my favorite things that has come out of celebrating the holidays on our own!