Thanksgiving: The Grinch who won’t steal my Irish Christmas
I am thankful for the festivities the Thanksgiving week brings here in the US, but I will be making my relatives do the turkey thing all over again five weeks from now for a very Irish Christmas celebration, writes Carole Coleman.
As an Irish woman living in America for a dozen years I have faced many cultural challenges. Some, such as being addressed as ‘Mam’, or having to kiss or hug almost everyone you meet, I bristled at to begin with but have accepted through a gradual process of wearing down.
But something I still grapple with at this time of year is the Thanksgiving holiday.
Just as I am starting to feel excited about Christmas, planning visits and visitors, salivating over the turkey and ham dinner, along comes Thanksgiving in late November and steals a march on it all.
One of my first Thanksgivings, as RTE’s Washington correspondent, I turned up to work to find the office building empty. The security guard looked at me pitifully and offered to have his wife send in hot turkey sandwiches when the bird was cooked. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to kiss him or just politely decline.
My continued lack of attention to the Thanksgiving tradition meant that the following November I had done nothing to set myself up with an invitation to an American home. I washed clothes and ate alone at the Old Ebbit Grill near the White House. Then dumping my take out box of mashed potatoes and dressing smothered in thick yellow gravy in the nearest bin, I caught a taxi to the airport and a night flight home to Ireland.
Ten years on – living still in Maryland with an American husband and two daughters – there is no escaping Thanksgiving. Our four and six-year-old girls have been busy cutting out pilgrim outfits from old pillowcases, decorating Indian headdresses and badgering me to make pumpkin pie, a brown custardy affair that tastes only slightly better than it looks.
And this is all before we even make it to the family celebration.
Every Thanksgiving my husband’s mother rents a house big enough to accommodate the four generations of her family, now numbering twenty. Starting in summer, potential locations and homes are emailed around for comments and suggestions, (central gathering space not big enough, fireplace place too small, not enough televisions) until the perfect nest is found and travel arrangements finalised.
By October the cooking sign-up sheets are emailed. Mother-in law and second son always oversee the turkey. Everyone else gets to choose between making sweet potatoes, dressing, vegetables, pie, and so on.
Within minutes of the food memo arriving in my inbox I hear the pinging of reply-all emails as the women in the family bag their tasks. This year I have been left with potatoes. (You’re Irish. Surely you can do something decent with a spud.)
Don’t get me wrong. I relish the excitement of this annual Thanksgiving ritual. I have been transformed from lonely pilgrim wandering the streets of the nation’s capital to a fully-invested potato-peeling participant in a very American tradition.
But the holiday does not warm my heart the way an Irish Christmas can. Thanksgiving is just Christmas dinner with the shopping frenzy commencing after the turkey instead of culminating with it.
Black Friday, the day following the celebration, is so named, not because the shops are black with people as I initially thought, but because discount sales push retailers from the red into the black.
This year online shops will start their sales and bigger stores will fling their cash boxes open on Thursday evening as the dinner plates are still being scraped into the trash. This Friday, Saturday and Sunday are three of the biggest shopping days on the American calendar – the coming fiscal cliff notwithstanding.
Christmas by contrast is an altogether briefer affair. Americans are known to return to work the next day and non-Christians don’t stop to mark the feast.
On December 25th you can buy an iPad, have a tooth extracted, or book your summer vacation. Baked ham or Prime rib are popular meal choices but are often served on Christmas Eve rather than on the day itself.
With apologies to members of my American family joining us for Christmas, we will be doing the turkey thing all over again five weeks from now.
I will not relinquish my chance to spend Christmas Eve turning a stale loaf of bread and a bunch of parsley into the mouth-watering stuffing my mother makes, or to spend Christmas morning filling the back end of the bird with Denny’s sausage meat.
This week our schools are closed, our house is strewn with pilgrim hats and I am shopping as if it were December 23rd. I am thankful for all this but I remain adamant Thanksgiving will not be the Grinch who steals my Irish Christmas.
Carole Coleman is a former Washington correspondent for RTÉ. She is on Twitter @Carolecoleman.