At a recent Thanksgiving celebration in Geneva, where almost all the participations were expats, we were asked to tell what we were thankful for. Traditionally, people express their thanks for something or some things during the dinner feast. Tradition also has it that people say thanks for their family, friends and good health. All of that is as much a part of Thanksgiving as are the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, and pumpkin pie.
Was I being unfaithful to the spirit of the American Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving holiday is an American tradition. The fourth Thursday in November has been a national holiday since 1863. The celebration relives the history of how Native Americans helped the first Pilgrims who came to the New World. The turkey, cranberry sauce and all are supposed to be reminders that we should all be thankful for something, as were the Pilgrims who were thankful that the Native Americans showed them how to survive in the harsh environment of New England and the first successful harvest.
While it would be easy to demythologize the history of Thanksgiving – the eventual harsh if not barbaric treatment of the Indians by the subsequent settlers is beyond controversy and the holiday has been protested by numerous native groups – it is interesting to speculate on the relevance of Thanksgiving to those Americans living outside the United States. Numerous festivities were held by different American organizations in Switzerland. Many American families had dinner celebrations just as they would have had if they were back in the United States. (I hesitate to use the word “home” here since for many native Americans who have lived outside the U.S. for many years and have taken other citizenships, the concept of “home” is not necessarily where they were born and raised.)
But how does one celebrate an American tradition outside the United States? This could apply not only to Thanksgiving but also to the Independence Day celebration of July 4. (Geneva used to be the site of the world’s largest July 4 celebration outside the U.S.) While one can certainly celebrate a given cultural event that is part of one’s background, is there an emotional attachment to an event that has lost much of its meaning for those living for many years outside the United States?
This is part of the expat situation. There are many non-native Swiss who celebrate their country of origin’s holidays outside their countries. Those celebrations are part of their cultural identity. As they are living in Switzerland, they celebrate traditions that are very much a part of their histories in another country. And since Switzerland is a multicultural country, this seems very normal here.
But as we witness more and more identity wars based on singular identities, the very idea of multiple identities and celebrations of a particular identity in another context has become more and more problematic. Tribal emotions, such as Catalonia for the Catalans, are overwhelming multiple identities.
My granddaughter was invited to a Thanksgiving celebration at the home of an American family in Geneva. She had never been to a Thanksgiving celebration before. In the future, I hope she will celebrate other holidays associated with other countries with other families in Geneva. As I said, I am thankful for living in Switzerland.