Our first year in Sweden, Anders & I lived in an apartment in Malmö. When Thanksgiving rolled around, I was hugely pregnant with Martin, who was due on November 17th, but by Thanksgiving was already late by a week (and destined to be even later after another 14 days had passed). I had met some people and made some tentative friends and had even been to the first meeting, a few weeks earlier, of what would become the AWC. My mom was staying with us, in anticipation of her first grandchild's impending birth, and we decided that a real Thanksgiving was in order. I was missing the huge family celebration that had been a part of my childhood and life for years: EVERYONE, cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other miscellaneous relatives gathered together under one roof. We didn't have it every year either, since we were often far away, but any time it was possible, when Thanksgiving came, we gathered our loved ones and celebrated together. I wanted to have something similar, even though I was living in Sweden.
That first year, it was Anders & me, my mom, and Anders' family. They had never had a real Thanksgiving dinner before. I'm not actually sure if they had ever had a whole roasted turkey, though they had certainly had goose, which is a southern Swedish tradition the same time of year. But Swedes stuff their goose with apples & plums. They had never had bread stuffing. They had never had pumpkin pie. NEVER HAD PUMPKIN PIE. Imagine! Everyone agreed that it was good and that it tasted like "mjuk pepparkakor" (soft gingersnaps). And to be honest, even though I know they enjoyed the meal and we all had a good time, it was quite obvious that this was not going to be a tradtion that they were really interested in being a part of the way Americans celebrate. It was...just a nice dinner.
It's hard to hold Thanksgiving on the actual 4th Thursday in November here in Sweden. It's not a holiday, and the day after is not a holiday; they are just regular work days. Impossible to plan for and have a huge dinner in the middle of a regular work week.
So the following year and for every year after that, we invited our friends for Thanksgiving dinner on the Saturday following the actual holiday: other half-Swedish, half-American couples that were a part of the group of people that we were getting closer to, that we were in the same situation with, and who were also trying to keep this particular American holiday alive for themselves and their children the same way I was. The core group is, of course, the Wonders: my first friends here in Sweden, and their families. Debbie, Angie, Emily, Kelly. Kathey & Russell were a part of the group before they moved away, and we even called them several years in a row during our dinner (waking them up in the middle of the night in Australia) to sing snaps songs at them. Barbara & Paul joined us early on as well after she and I became friends.
Various other friends have joined us over the years, including my friend Camilla, old friends from Tetra Pak in Chicago that moved to Sweden on job rotation (Katrina & Adam, Paul & Selese). My friend Carol came a few years in a row with her family, before she passed away. My brother and Simone have been a part of our celebration. Even Lambi the poodle joined us one year (she graciously brought along Marie & L-G)! And now my cousin Cate and her family are a natural part of our guest list.
Because we are such a large group, and always have been, we decided after that first year to divide up the responsibilities. Our goal is to make sure that everyone we invite feels like they are essential in bringing Thanksgiving to life. And let's face it, I am not anything close to the kind of person who could pull off cooking this feast-o-rama for my own family, much less quadruple that. Thank goodness I am married to a man who IS capable of pulling it off, and who is a whiz with a carving knife to boot!
Each year I send out an email after the RSVPs have been received and confirmed and divvy up the food responsibilities. I do the grocery shopping, house-cleaning, table-setting and dishwashing aftermath. Anders takes care of the turkeys, the gravy, the stuffing IN the turkeys, and the mashed potatoes. And each family makes/buys & brings one of the other essential menu items: more dressing, Spanish black olives, cranberry relish, green bean or broccoli casserole, cornbread, a sweet potato dish (some years it's sweet, some years it's savory), pumpkin pies and at least one other dessert...we've had everything from pecan pie to chocolate layer cake to apple pie. Someone is delegated to bring wine and sodas. Someone else to bring late-night snacks for later.
And every year our friends bring the most important things of all: welcome hugs, huge smiles, big appetites, endless laughter, good conversation and best of all, a warm fuzzy feeling of friendship, tradition, ritual and love. I don't just feel American when my family and friends are gathered around our table(s) eating turkey(s) and making toasts and talking. I feel complete in a way that is hard to explain. Kelly told me once that our Thanksgiving dinner is a highlight of their year and that the whole family looks forward to it. I feel THANKFUL. Thankful that we are able to host this feast every year and thankful that I have great friends who want to share it with us (and bring their awesome cooking skillz with them). It's the whole point, isn't it?
Even if my children never know what it's like to grow up in America, and even if they've never watched a football game in their lives, they will know and understand the importance of Thanksgiving. They will know it's not really about the turkey or the stuffing or the pie. They'll know it's about the JOY of gathering your loved ones around you and giving thanks with and for all of them.
We've been slackers about photos the past few years, but I'll definitely make sure a group shot happens this weekend!
*Title from a quote by Thornton Wilder