This is the post I wrote a year ago, on Thanksgiving Day 2006.
Did you realize that Thanksgiving is this week? Well you probably did but it’s sort of snuck up on me.
Thanksgiving is one of the few uniquely American holidays. It’s not celebrated in France, or England, and certainly not in Mauritania. This morning in my Advanced Conversation class at Oasis, I gave them a little history of the holiday, which means that they now know more than most Americans. (Bet you don’t know when it became an official holiday. And who moved it to the 4th Thursday of November?) This is typical—they probably know more grammar than you do, too. Why? Because they care. Don’t worry—your pronunciation is better and you have a sound grasp of idioms, so you are unlikely to call someone on the phone and say, “How are you fine?” or write “I was sitting on the water tower sleeping like a log.”
Someone asked me about Halloween here. It doesn’t exist, although the dragonflies swarm in the heat, and at sunset the sky fills with torn-winged bats, as it does most nights throughout the year. The embassy hosts a party, only $6 per person and that includes a hamburger.
Thanksgiving doesn’t exist. Christmas doesn’t exist. None of these days are holidays—stores and businesses are open, you can go to Mauritel and pay your bill (just for fun) or buy bread at the bakery or do any of your normal, everyday activities. The days are hot and bright, if not exactly merry. The university is open.
So how do we celebrate? On Thursday, the kids have morning school but don’t go back after lunch, so the afternoon is free. (Up until about 1 ½ years ago, the weekend was Friday-Saturday and the kids had afternoon school on Thursday. We used to have them skip it.) A group of Americans gather in someone’s house. Everyone brings something; no one has to do too much. We usually eat chicken, potatoes, green beans—a lot of the usual fare. Our pumpkin pies are made from scratch and we only have cranberries if someone happens to have brought a can from the States the previous summer. One year we had grilled fish, another year rabbit. Both were excellent.
Christmas is usually better. The afternoons may still be hot, but by then the nights are usually cool and starry. I stand out on the balcony in the fresh breeze and think how the architecture around me is like old Christmas-card drawings of Bethlehem, with the flat-roofed houses and rounded doors. The kids are off school. A small group goes caroling round the other expatriate houses, garnering stares of amazement or amusement from neighbourhood children out kicking soccer balls, and each other, in the dust. On the last day of school, a skinny, dark-skinned Santa Claus arrives by donkey cart.
I bought a potiron this week, cut it in pieces and boiled and mashed it, and spent far too much time online trying to find my old pumpkin cookie recipe, which I got out of a Sesame Street Parent’s Magazine about 8 years ago. I finally found it, but of course only had about half the ingredients. I took the cookies and coffee for my Conversation class, and after we’d discussed the elections and Thanksgiving, we had a little party. Everyone was amazed at the thought of pumpkin (potiron) in cookies or pies. Really it is odd, but we’ve long grown used to it. (I’m still not used to the thought of it in coffee though. That’s just weird. What is Starbucks thinking?) Afterwards we went around and said what we were thankful for. It was a new concept. People weren’t sure what to say. I said, “Oh things like family, good health, that the elections went calmly and well, that it’s finally starting to cool down at night, that we’re all here together.” “That’s it,” they all said. “All of those things. That’s what we’re thankful for.”
Here’s a picture taken outside our old house, a view of our neighbour’s tree (my kids were usually up in the top of it), and a tent family living in front of a new house unfortunately painted Pepto-Bismal pink.