Tradition: ‘It’s Happy Thanksgiving’

Posted: November 26, 2009 in Иркутск, Holidays & Tradition
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“. . . Thanksgiving, hooray! / We’re going to dinner / at Grandma’s today,” is the little stanza from Jack Prelutsky’s collection of Thanksgiving-related children’s poetry that I end up recalling every year about this time.

Obviously, I’m in Russia, and obviously, in Russia, American national holidays are not observed. So this year was a bit different. At the same time, I feel like the distance made me think about the whole “cultural exchange” idea in a different light, and out of that, I think I have a much deeper understanding of Thanksgiving, home, and similar luxuries.

The first and foremost discovery of Thanksgiving ’09 was how much the holiday is (and probably most holidays, cultural practices, etc., from which I’ve been isolated for the past months, are) based on tradition.

Here are the deviations from tradition, from unforgivable to perhaps pleasant, that helped me discover this.

1. We had school today. Rating of deviation from tradition: mostly unforgivable. I realized I’m now part of a probably small percentage of American citizens who have ever gone to school on Thanksgiving. Snaps for me, except not really.

We even had an in-class essay. Don’t get me wrong, I love to write, a lot, actually, but a 75-minute essay is hardly a replacement for Turkey Day. In the spirit of Yankee rebellion, to respond to the topic, “Me in the cultural landscape of Russia,” I wrote about Thanksgiving and how much more I appreciate my own country because of Russia. And then we got homework. But, perhaps a blessing in disguise, if I’m completely honest, it was the essay that got me thinking about some of these big “discoveries.”

2. The weather was cold and everything was white. Rating of deviation (from the Arizonan Turkey Day): agreeable. The temps got down to -21 deg. C. (about -6 deg. F.) last night, and there was a fog over the city, so when I woke up today, any non-cement or non-brick structure (meaning everything except buildings: trees, bushes, more trees) was covered in perfect crystalline ice, which fell bit by bit as a light powder throughout the day. Gorgeous.

In keeping with the traditional Southwestern Day of Thanks and Good Weather, though, the sun was out, and warmed the city up to just under freezing by midday when I was out and about. It’s the first time the sun has been out in about 4-5 days with clear skies; I’d forgotten how low it is in the sky already, all day long. Really emphasizes the whole “You’re in Siberia” message.

3. I had to do the grocery shopping and cooking. Rating of deviation: jury’s out. As my third Thanksgiving away from home , it was the first where I had a substantial role in dinner preparation and where the success of Thanksgiving actually happening rested partially on my shoulders. I wanted to make (and successfully did) a Waldorf salad.

Unfortunately, as I realized after 7-8 stops in various supermarkets and outdoor markets around the city, the only place you can get celery is at the central market at a random herb stand, run by a nice lady, who, although she overcharges you for the darn celery, after finding out that you’re outside the Russian mainstream and that you are buying the “tselderei” for your American holiday today, feels bad and gives you a few free sprigs of dill to fake making up for it. Too bad dill is about as expensive as snow here. I also eventually found the walnuts, paid for imported grapes, imported apples, and the most neutral-tasting yogurt option (apple-flavored), and cut ’em up and mixed ’em together. Turned out tasty.

Although the independence, responsibility, blah blah is nice and a sign of the whole “coming into my own” and so forth, it’s so much easier when my offers to help in the kitchen are politely declined by the expert cooks of the family.

4. No technically related family members at dinner. Rating of deviation: “cool”. Elizabeth hosted, along with her 3 apartment-mates and a boyfriend and a girlfriend of theirs, then Patrick, Romany with her friend (a ski-team teammate from Buryatia), plus myself and Vova. Their apartment is quite nice: it was originally built for high-up officers in the KGB. It was a good company: less dorky family jokes and (see next). . .

5. American violinists (Romany and Elizabeth) & Russian singer-guitarists at dinner. Rating of deviation: wonderful. Romany and Elizabeth shared some folk tunes with us, and Semyon and Sasha each played a song or two (“authoristic” songs–more on these later) and sang. Since it turned out that more than half of the Russians present were from Buryatia, the very beautiful hymn of the Republic of Buryatia turned into a quiet and lulling chorus sing-along addition to the concert.

6. The stuffing wasn’t Grandma’s or Stove-Top, the bird was a chicken, the berry sauce wasn’t cranberry, mom’s/Kathy’s jello pretzel salad wasn’t there, Aunt Julie’s bean dish wasn’t there, both Grandmas’ versions of sweet potatoes weren’t there, I was allowed to have wine, the pumpkin pie wasn’t from Costco, and other minor things. Rating of diversion: not as bad as you’d think.

The table was full of as-good-as-you-can-get in Irkutsk variations on all the faves, with a few saved/imported-from-the-States ingredients like canned pumpkin, canned sweet potatoes, and marshmallows. The pies were delicious; the pumpkin bread, though dense, was at least reminiscent of Grandma Verna’s mix; the stuffing, beets, potatoes, gravy, and the rest were more than just the usually disappointing “russkii variant” (Russian variation), but the actual things; and the stomachs too full and the eyes droopy afterwards.

In short, at the end of the night, all was well. A huge light-up “Happy New Year” banner had gone up on the side of the central shopping mall, the dawn of Black Friday (not existent in Russia, for obvious reasons) only hours away.

But, the biggest difference of all, perhaps, came with how the traditional Thanksgiving didn’t just happen: we had to find the food, cook it, invite people over, and then explain what it was.

So in our reconstruction of the holiday and dinner-long explanation of it to our Russian guests, I found out how much it really is based on the “tradition” of the thing. It doesn’t matter that either recipe x, y, or z really isn’t all that tasty, it’s simply the one that has to be used because it’s the Thanksgiving recipe. Seriously, vegetable pie? After this question occurred to me, I tried to separate myself and my palate from the actual taste of pumpkin: not really possible–it’s pumpkin pie, you eat it on Thanksgiving. Period.

Of course, when said traditions are broken, they’re noticed more, and it was a gift to be able to explain and talk about them around a pretty darn well set table with good company. And the little things that are able to be kept in order, like the dishes, the full-stomach feelings, and the random remembrance of my favorite little Prelutsky poem, are truly appreciated.

(Warning: sentimentalism approaching. . . .) As I wrote about, or in some measure hinted at, in my half-Thanksgiving-themed, half-culturology-themed Speech Practice essay today, and as I shared at the table a few hours ago, I’ll again repeat (in glorious, written, American English, and to an understanding, American, reading audience). . .

This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for my family and my friends and God, for how much they make life wonderful. But more specific to this year, this day in November 2009, I’m perhaps most thankful for my own country, for home. Of course, I am very happy to be in Russia and for the great people I’ve met and befriended here, for whom I’m also thankful, but it is only through the experience of the past 3 months that I’ve come to value America, for all the good of what’s happened since last November, and for all the bad, too. The security of life and identity that I think I could only ever feel there are gifts. And so today, I’m thankful for those things I now see are valuable and dear to me.

Enjoy your turkey day, cultural analysis-free, and have a fourth helping of the too-dry turkey on my behalf. With warm wishes from Russia, a very happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

  1. […] Holiday: It’s beginning to look at lot like New Year’s. . . To properly describe my experience in the realm of the Russian “holiday season,” if such a concept actually exists as a period defined apart from the general conception of everyday life in this country, then I should go back to my Thanksgiving holiday here. […]

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