Count me among the many Americans who think Thanksgiving is the best holiday. My reasons are all the usual suspects: food, family, tradition, gratitude, and no presents. (Frankly, I could live without the televised football game seduction after the meal, but I reluctantly acknowledge it’s part of the tradition.)
Being globe-trotters, though (see Trekking, Traipsing, and Writing), we’ve frequently been overseas during holidays. There’s something bitter-sweet about celebrating from afar. On the one hand, I long for the nurturing feeling of home. On the other hand, my memories of those distant celebrations are among my most vivid and sweet.
Like the time, in 1974, when we made Thanksgiving dinner for as many of Senegal’s Peace Corps Volunteers as could make their way to our place in Dakar, the capital. Now there’s a group of people who are hungry, and not just for food. Mostly young, mostly out in the bush, sometimes homesick, the draw of a traditional American meal with other Americans was all but irresistible to them.
We crammed a hundred potatoes, sweet and white, into our oven. The bakery down the street agreed to roast our four turkeys (nice big fat ones, ordered from the Embassy Commissary) in their giant ovens. Cranberry sauce also came from the Commissary. The biggest challenge was treating enough lettuce (in permanganate, to kill any lurking amoebas) to make salad for 60-70 people. Brownies, brownies, brownies — you can hardly imagine how many brownies we went through!
We might not have had all the trimmings, and the weather might have been tropical, but it was definitely Thanksgiving in all its food, fellowship, and gratitude respects. Little did I know, almost forty years later I’d get to use the scene in Chapter Four of Deadly Adagio.
We were once living in Lomé, the capital of Togo (a bite-sized West African country about the size of West Virginia, just east of Ghana), on New Year’s Eve. We partied on the beach and, just before midnight, took our champagne into the water, laughing and singing. We knew the exact moment the new year arrived because, to our surprise and joy, all the ships in the nearby harbor blasted their powerful horns. It’s not every year you get to welcome the new year while drinking champagne in the Bight of Benin, fireworks in the distance, with ten ships’ cacophony keeping the beat.
In 1998, when our daughter was teaching at the American School in Casablanca, we decided to meet in Senegal and travel together. As it worked out, we were in Niokolo-Kobo, the game park, on the first night of Hanukkah. Of course, I knew ahead of time we’d be somewhere in Senegal at that time, so came prepared with little candles. No menorah, but melted wax on a notebook did the trick. It’s a very sweet memory – for me, anyway. No one else in the family remembers it, but I have proof.
And then there was President Obama’s first inauguration. While not a recurring holiday in the sense of Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve, it was a very important day for me, and it occurred while we were in Ghana. At first, I was dejected not to be home for the inauguration, even more so when I learned there was no public ceremony or broadcast at the Embassy. But we found we could go to the W.E.B. Du Bois Center where the CNN coverage would be shown on a giant screen. I look back upon that singular moment as a very special one, surrounded by hundreds of other Americans and Ghanaians on a historic and joyful day.
We’re equal-opportunity celebrants, though, observing the holidays of the region we’re in, too. Like the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice (Eid-al-Adha), commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, when families buy a goat and spend a month fattening it up so they can…… well, you know.
Hanging on to traditional holiday celebrations, whether national, ethnic, or universal, re-links us to our culture, to our families and friends in absentia, and to our country. We feel whole.
What do you do when you’re away from your home and family during a holiday?