This week, families will be making big decisions. The decision will be how, or if, to get everyone together for a feast, as is the tradition of every other Thanksgiving. Most likely some sacrifices will be made in order to protect ourselves from family coming in from other places to spend a couple days together. It will be different no matter how each family decides to celebrate. I was thinking about some of the Thanksgiving celebrations from my past and realized I have had more Thanksgiving celebrations than most people my age would have. First of all, I come from a very traditional family, and I also married into a very traditional family. I grew up with a huge extended family that always got together to feast. It seemed to me like there were 20 to 30 people coming and going on that day. I can remember a few Thanksgivings when the Christmas tree truck driver would call in the middle of it all to say he was pulling in to the nursery to unload. Having so many cousins and other rif raf around made it easier for my father to enlist help real quick to get the trees off that truck so the driver could go somewhere to enjoy his Thanksgiving. If you knew my father, you know it wouldn’t be unusual for him to invite the driver over to celebrate with us. Besides our large family, we always had someone else who, for one reason or another, would celebrate at one of our many tables. The only decision to be made was whether or not to sit at an adult table or the kiddy table. For the longest time I couldn’t wait to be invited to sit at an adult table. Then, once that finally happened, I couldn’t get back to the kiddy table fast enough, as it was way more fun. I soon realized that no matter how much I thought I was the cool uncle or the cool dad, there’s really no such thing, and was soon sentenced back to the adult table forever…the adult version of finding out the truth about Santa Claus. Mimi’s family hosts a huge Thanksgiving, and I always felt right at home with her family. Her mom does lots of cooking and we do lots of eating and visiting up in the Ozarks, where we have celebrated for the last 27 years. I love it up there this time of year. They are three or four weeks ahead of us, weather wise, always causing us to pack for colder temperatures than we’re used to here.
The reason I have had more Thanksgivings than others my age is that some of the countries I had visited during that time of year had different dates and reasons to celebrate. In Holland, where I worked in the tulip fields, we celebrated Thanksgiving on the first Wednesday in November. Many of the pilgrims who migrated to the Plymouth plantation came from Leiden, in Holland. It’s not a public holiday, but, nevertheless, lots of people go to church once or twice that day, sharing meals in between. I would then have my own private Thanksgiving feast on the real Thanksgiving Day, in my tent, with some concoction of a Thanksgiving meal. I had three Thanksgiving years in Grenada, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer producing papaya. In Grenada, we celebrated Thanksgiving on October 25, which marks the anniversary of the US led invasion of the island in 1983. The American military saved the Grenadians from what would have been a terrible takeover by a leadership that could have been a disaster. During those years I would celebrate their Thanksgiving with them, and I would also celebrate our Thanksgiving with my friends and other Peace Corps volunteers.
There is a Thanksgiving that I will never forget. I had been stealthily moving around the Mediterranean Ocean after my job in the Netherlands ended. After six months of moving farther and farther south, searching for the climate that suited my clothes, I wound up crossing into Africa by way of the Straits of Gibraltar, while seeking warmer temperatures. From there, I slowly moved farther south until I couldn’t go any farther. After six weeks in the Sahara, I bumped into the border, at the point where the Western Sahara meets Mauritania. There were very few people down there, other than large and small groups of desert nomads on their camels, so I was surprised when I walked right into a military encampment. They told me that was as far as I could go, because there was some civil unrest right around the next sand dune. I had finally reached the end of the line…thought I’d never get there. I quickly evacuated that situation, which left me deep in the desert. I headed towards the nearest village to find a place to sleep, a few provisions and whatever else came my way. By that time, I had discovered that the tribal nomads spent their nights with their camels to protect them and whatever goods they were hauling to wherever they were going. These nomadic camps were the most beautiful and interesting thing I had ever seen. Each tribe had unique ways of wearing their clothes that protected them from the daytime heat and the plunging nighttime temperatures. One tribe wore all white. Some wore light blue. They all decorated their camels with beautiful colors and camel jewelry. I doubt they had a Camels-Are-Us store to get these things, so they were very specialized, handmade adornments.
I have no pictures of this period of the journey, since a customs agent felt like my camera was actually his camera. I argued about that to no avail. It’s hard to argue when you don’t speak Arabic. I would have to rely on my memory until I could procure another camera. The photos I could have taken from these nomadic camps would have been National Geographic good. I wasn’t sure how the camel drivers would feel about me hanging out with them, so I had to test it out. It turns out that ‘extremely welcoming’ would be a bit too strong of a description, as far as their allowing me in. They didn’t seem to mind me being there. In fact, they hardly noticed that I was there with them outside the mud village walls. There would be several fires going on, and at each fire, there would be a huge cauldron of stew with root crops, vegetables and iguana, which is used to season the broth. There was a wedge of bread that was cooked on the fire used to sop up the soup since there were no spoons. This meal is available to anyone that needs a meal. You were expected to contribute when you could and eat heartily when you couldn’t. I was fresh out of iguanas, so I didn’t have much to contribute. I offered a few dirham‘s every time. Sometimes they would accept it, and sometimes they wouldn’t… just a welcoming gesture. They really didn’t have much use for money; it didn’t fit into their lifestyle. I had been spending my nights like this for a couple of weeks and had gotten to the point where I looked forward, all day, to spending another evening under the black sky with these people who had been doing this for thousands of years.
One Thanksgiving night I will never forget. I remember seeing a particularly large tribe and their camels slowly pulling into the village where I was hanging out. As I watched the long camel train pull in, I realized that I was seeing the tribe of the fabled ‘blue people.’ I had seen one or two blue people mixed into crowds in Marrakesh, but I had never seen a whole tribe of them. Blue people are unusually tall, and their skin is so black that it almost seems blue. They wore light blue robes, which made for quite a sight against the golden sand. They began unloading their camels, making camp, getting fires going outside the village walls and gathering provisions in the village. I knew this would somehow make for a very interesting night. I noticed on this night there was a huge wooden boxful of bowl shaped things available to anyone who needed one. They passed by the box, picked out their bowl shaped thing, then headed over to the cauldron, where someone ladled out some hot stew and a wedge of that wonderful bread. When it was time for me to pick out my bowl shaped thing, I picked out a Volkswagen hubcap. There were several in there. I picked out the one that seemed the cleanest and then got my ladle of soup and went back to lean against the wall, where I spent most of the evening watching this spectacle. As meals were finished and bowls were placed back in the box, the fires were stoked and the musical instruments came out. There were lots of drums and some stringed instruments that I didn’t recognize. As nice as the instruments sounded, it was the singing that was unforgettable. I had the feeling the songs were thousands of years old in a language, I think, was either Bedouin or Berber. I couldn’t tell, but it seemed that the entire tribe was joining in. The moment was very moving, as I realized that this was probably how they spend every night, until they lulled themselves and me to sleep, in order to get ready for another long day in a camel train. I had recently traded my tent for a carpet, so I was sleeping under the stars with the rest of them. There were lots of weird sounds coming from that many tired men and from the camels, with their burping and arguing all night. I knew that it would be a Thanksgiving that I would always remember. I gave thanks for being able to experience this night and for everything about my life that made it possible for me to live life however I chose to. I hope that you have figured out a way to make this unusual Thanksgiving one that you’ll cherish and remember as one of your favorite Thanksgivings ever. We might have to break tradition for one year, but I don’t think that automatically has to be a bad thing. Given a little effort and creativity, you might create a holiday your family will never forget. Memories, after all, are all we really have in the end.