On a cold post-Thanksgiving Friday, my family called from even colder Upstate New York to ask if I had celebrated Thanksgiving the night prior. It was my second Thanksgiving with the Ertegun community (or “Ertegiving” to those in the know), and I happily confirmed that thousands of miles from home in the comfortable confines of the Ertegun House I had enjoyed a delicious, stimulating, and at times, raucous Thanksgiving dinner. My response elicited a probing follow-up: “but was it a real Thanksgiving?”
A challenging question. What makes a real Thanksgiving dinner? Turkey, perhaps? Family? A shared meal? A holiday without gifts? Expressions of earnest, if sometimes, awkward thanks?
On the turkey front, I could report that a properly stuffed bird did, indeed, feature. But the turkey, however delicious and caringly prepared, was only one of many delectables in the smorgasbord of international offerings. There was no comestible centerpiece at this Thanksgiving. Far from being relegated to the side, the turkey stood comfortably as one contribution among many equals. So while I confirmed that I did enjoy the traditional turkey, gravy, and smashed potatoes, the real story was the hummus and pitta, the dumplings, spiced Singaporean beef, and the stuffed grape leaves that also filled my plate.
The absence of material gift-giving has always been one of the driving reasons behind my love of Thanksgiving, and the occassion to sit in the company of friends and colleagues without the intention or requirement to exchange material goods was as refreshing, as ever. At Thanksgiving – as we so often do in the Ertegun House – we exchange our non-material gifts: our insights, our understanding, our hopes, our fears, our challenges. It is simply wrong to say that Thanksgiving doesn’t involve gift-giving. At its core, Thanksgiving is about giving a different kind of gift.
One large deviation from the Thanksgivings of my youth was the inclusion of a team trivia competition. Although not a Thanksgiving tradition to which I was accustomed, I found it all too easy to apply myself with overweening zeal to the challenge.
It wasn’t the normal kind of exercise that one discusses after a hearty Thanksgiving meal, but without a doubt, we were flexing some real trivia muscles as the evening wore on. If Thanksgiving is about feeling and expressing gratitude, the sharing of personal gifts, and the simple joy of camaraderie over a meal, then in our little corner of Oxford, thousands of miles from where it had originated, and in a political and social context unimaginably different from the “original” Thanksgiving, a true giving of thanks had occurred. The follow-up question from my parents gave me occasion to reflect carefully on what Thanksgiving could be. But as I recalled the sights, smells, and sounds of that drizzly November evening, the answer was all too clear. Of course, it was a real Thanksgiving.