Our First Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the States. Which means there’s a good chance that plenty of you are half paying attention at what I hope is a shortened day at work before heading away (or staying home) to celebrate the holiday. But before we all go our separate ways for the next few days, APW’s newest staff member, Emily, wanted to take the opportunity to talk about her plans for tomorrow. The funny thing is, her post completely caught me off guard (read: I cried like a baby). Because as Michael and I are about to hop on a flight to shoot one of my last weddings of the year, I’m reminded that sometimes the most special holiday plans are the ones that don’t look anything like the picture we have in our head from our childhood. In fact, maybe when we’re older, these do-what-you-can-with-what-you-have holidays will end up the foundation for what become our most cherished rituals and traditions. And with that, we’ll see you guys next week!

—Maddie for Maternity Leave

This is the first year that I’ll be making Thanksgiving dinner. In my family, this is a huge deal, and not one that I thought I’d be taking on so soon. I imagined it happening when I was in my thirties, with a big house that was mine and all of my relatives flying in wearing striped scarves and pulling matching black suitcases. And one of those dogs running around like in all those black and white movies my family loves to watch, although I’m not sure our cats would be too pleased about that. And probably one of our hypothetical future children running around with a cute bow in her hair, because in my family, baby-making comes before hosting duties.

So it’s a bit foreign to me that I’ll be making Thanksgiving dinner for two, just me and Ian, in our one-bedroom apartment. Where’s my perfectly tied apron? My holiday china? My cousins on the couch watching football? Nowhere to be found. (I looked!) My grandmother is in Texas, my mother will be in California, and my Kenyan husband, who could really care less about Thanksgiving, will be working until 6:00 that night.

The first Thanksgiving that I’m at the helm of is falling short of what I always imagined, and yet I couldn’t be happier.

Our first Thanksgiving as a married couple, we flew to Texas to be with my father’s side of the family, headed by my grandmother. I got to show off my new husband, and we all had dinner at a restaurant (borderline sacrilege, trust me) so it was very low-stress and lovely. But it was incredibly expensive for both of us to fly and rent a car. We had to give up our first Christmas tree to afford it.

Our second Thanksgiving, I went to my grandmother’s alone, which seemed like a great idea. This way, I could quiet the whispers of this could be her last Thanksgiving—an idea everyone has fixated on since I was eight—and for only the cost of one ticket instead of two. Ian stayed in North Carolina and worked, which meant that he got to celebrate the holiday in a way he liked: collecting overtime. We both did exactly what we wanted to do, so it should have been perfect. But as nice as it was to be with my family for Thanksgiving, the pain of missing my husband made me realize something.

He was staying home, and I was going home. I was visiting my family, and yet I was missing my family.

That’s when I realized that home wasn’t something I’d left behind when I travelled cross-country with my future husband, my cat, and everything that would fit in my car. Home was something I was building. Home is something we’re building together.

So this Thursday at 5:00 in the morning, Ian will leave for work. I’ll get up and start preparing the dishes my family always puts on the table. Cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, and diner rolls, just like Texas. There will be pumpkin cheesecake instead of pie, for Ian, and a bottle of bubbly from our favorite wine store that we always drink on special occasions. I’ll open two cans of turkey dinner for our spoiled cats, and when he gets home in the evening, we’ll sit down at a table that is usually my desk and share our first Thanksgiving meal as a married couple in our home.

Photo by: Hart & Sol West

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  • Ali

    Loved this – !

    “That’s when I realized that home wasn’t something I’d left behind when I travelled cross-country with my future husband, my cat, and everything that would fit in my car. Home was something I was building. Home is something we’re building together.”

    We will be celebrating our first Thanksgiving as a married couple by meeting for a special lunch (at a still undecided) “American restaurant.” Then my husband will go back to work and I will go home (my bilingual school did give me the afternoon off) to get ready for my sister – in – law´s bridal shower that evening. We live in Colombia where Thanksgiving is not celebrated. My sister in law told me she understood if I didn´t go to her bridal shower because of Thanksgiving, but I couldn´t think of anything more against the spirit of Thanksgiving than missing a special event in my family´s life to go celebrate with what would be a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

    Im pretty happy with my day, though of course there is always the pang of missing my family and that 4 day weekend you guys are about to start!!

    • Jessica

      Enjoy your Thanksgiving, it sounds perfect!

    • One More Sara

      As a fellow expat, Thanksgiving is hands down the hardest day of the year to be away from the States. I’m going to try to stream a parade online, but last year, the online feed I found looked more or less like a traffic cam (underwhelming to say the least). It sounds like you have a good attitude about it! If you can get your hands on some cranberries, cran sauce is actually really easy to make. No matter what else you are eating, if you have some cranberry sauce, it feels a lot more like Thanksgiving.

    • Not Sarah

      As a Canadian expat in the US, I’ve pretty much given up on ever celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving again. It’s impossible to find a turkey in October and there always seems to be some reason that I can’t make it up to my parents’ where they can get turkeys in October. Maybe I need to book that weekend on my calendar for next year right now so that it doesn’t get booked up like it has the last few years…

      Enjoy your Colombian Thanksgiving!!!

    • Sara

      I taught English in Egypt for a year, and Thanksgiving was such a strange experience. It was hard (and expensive) to find a turkey, and really hard to make traditional side dishes when we couldn’t figure out how to find some ingredients. Half the teachers were Scottish or Australian so they didn’t really celebrate the holiday but were happy to contribute a dish to our pot luck. One of the girls brought balloons because she wanted to help decorate but didn’t know what would be appropriate. It made for an interesting meal.

    • Suzanne

      As an expat in New Zealand, I honestly hadn’t given Thanksgiving a thought. In our family, Christmas was a bigger holiday and even then my family has always been pretty laid back. We enjoyed each others company whenever and wherever we could see each other. There were years where many of us couldn’t be around for Thanksgiving or Christmas and so just being able to spend time together when we could became more important, holiday or not.
      This is my first Thanksgiving away from the states (honestly forgot about it until I read the post). Maybe I’ll make a nice Thai curry (I hate turkey, weird I know) in honor of it for my parents (who are in town for the wedding next week) and my partner tonight since it is Thursday here.

    • Cassandra

      Enjoy your non-traditional Thanksgiving! Expat holidays are always a bit funny. I did expat (Canadian) Thanksgiving in Africa several years ago complete with turkey and it was such a fun experience – and luckily, we had a bunch of American friends who were so inspired by our Canadian Thanksgiving that we then got a second Thanksgiving out of it when the American holiday rolled around.

  • Just lovely! Resisting the urge to quote the entirety of the post here in my comment…So I’ll just say, “Exactly!”

  • While I’m a fan of doing the holidays with both my own and my husband’s family I find myself looking forward to eventually having a chance to do a holiday just the two of us. Will I miss partaking in family traditions? Absolutely. Somehow though a tiny Thanksgiving with just the two of us sounds perfect though, at least to do once.

    • meg

      First holiday just the two of you is MAGIC. I’ve written about that process over the last 3.5 years here. Our first holiday alone was accidental (I got too sick to travel before a Thanksgiving), but it ended up a great preview of what was to come.

  • I love the part about realizing where your home is. We’ve actually written into our wedding vows that “home will always be wherever we’re together.”

    And I also had dreams of hosting my first Thanksgiving in our lovely and spacious hypothetical future house. Instead, it was last year with his parents, brother, and sister-in-law and it looked like six adults sharing a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment. Also, the fire department came. Not ideal, but Thanksgiving in our home nonetheless.

  • Steph

    While I hate cooking and love the solution we’ve come up with for thanksgiving — us and both of our parents plus a few others in my childhood home, I help clean, my parents still doing the cooking, this will be our 4th year running — I have to say your idea sounds lovely :) Happy Thanksgiving to you and your husband!!

  • Despite Maddie’s warning, I was NOT expecting to cry like a baby.

    We’re about to catch the bus to go to our first thanksgiving as a married couple, followed by a big “post-nup” party for friends relatives that couldn’t come to our tiny wedding, followed by christmas in my hometown, and another party for those friends and relatives. We are excited about all these events, but also really, really looking forward to a holiday without all the expense and travel time, that’s just the two of us.

  • Granola

    This post was a really cute image. I’m actually going to Thanksgiving dinner with my husband’s family while he works, because flights back home to be with my family were too expensive.

    I’m really excited to experience this new tradition, but there’s a bit of mourning because it’s the first Thanksgiving I’ve ever spent not at my parents’ house. Thanks for reminding me that the holidays aren’t a static thing, they’re what you make of it, and what they need to be.

  • Martha

    ENJOY!!! Last year was my first time hosting Thanksgiving. Originally my then-boyfriend-now-fiance and I decided not to go home because it was too expensive. His parents ended up coming to visit us and it was wonderful – they are arriving tonight for another year! I am very excited to be “staking my claim” early in my marriage on a holiday. Growing up my parents always had Thanksgiving at our house, and I want my children to have the same.

    Thanksgiving is definitely what you make it – I promise, it’ll be great and you and Ian will never want to travel for it again.

  • We’re doing our Thanksgiving just the two of us (and the pets) this year too. It’s just a nice break from all the (totally amazing) holiday craziness, and we’ll see my original family at Christmas, so this feels like a great option for us.

  • Margi

    Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and always has been. However, I live on the East coast and my family lives on the West Coast. I always come home for Christmas, so the time and expense of traveling for Thanksgiving is never worthwhile given that I will then be home in a few weeks after Thanksgiving. For the past 4 years, I have spent the holiday with my boyfriend’s family here on the East Coast. Each year gets harder, when I visit home because home no longer feels like home, but being here on the east coast doesn’t feel like home either. Here’s hoping that I will one day find my “home” again.

  • My husband and I started a tradition last year of hosting a traditional Thanksgiving meal on Black Friday. With so many in-laws and divorces and remarriages, etc, there are just too many families for everyone to go see, but it was important to us to be able to bring everyone (who wants to be there) together. It’s expensive and stressful, and we always left someone unhappy because we couldn’t see everyone and it always felt like we were choosing, So, now we invite absolutely everyone, open our home to all friends and family who would like to share a meal with us, and we spend the actual day of Thanksgiving cooking together and as a quiet night at home just the two of us. It’s lovely — and way better than fighting crazy crowds to get a bargain at the local Target on Black Friday, too.

    • Steph

      What a neat idea! My hubby works in retail so this wouldn’t work for us, but I think it’s really cool!!!

    • meg

      This is lovely, and such a great solution in situations where people have loved ones that are at odds with each other. I love it. Invite EVERYONE to your home on the non-holiday, and let them make up their own grownup minds about if they come or not. Love, love, love.

    • KH_Tas

      My family of origin does this for Christmas, inviting everyone on Boxing Day

  • “That’s when I realized that home wasn’t something I’d left behind when I travelled cross-country with my future husband, my cat, and everything that would fit in my car. Home was something I was building. Home is something we’re building together.”

    Yup, exactly that…. we are not going to be able to travel (overseas ) to my home country for Christmas for yet another year (I can’t complain since we just were there for my brother’s wedding), and my mother in law will also be away for Christmas. So it will be my husband, my brother in law, his girl, an old friend who’s just moved to Europe and me. So much for a huge traditional family dinner but I am sure we’ll make it magic… that’s what Christmas is for. And yes, home is this thing we are building together.

  • “He was staying home, and I was going home. I was visiting my family, and yet I was missing my family.”

    I think that really sums up the struggle between merging families and creating your own family, especially for couples who don’t have children. My husband and I love our respective families, but there is the expectation that we need to travel on holidays to visit one side or the other. As a result, it’s hard to form our own holiday traditions and the travel itself can be draining/expensive.

    • meg

      Weighing in here to say that at some point (maybe a year in) we just put our foot down about the being the couple without children thing. I flat out told people point blank that not having kids didn’t make us a different kind of family, and we were not going to live under different expectations as the couples with kids. It was one of those moments where people didn’t even realize the assumptions they’d been making, I think. And then we stood our ground, and started making the plans we needed to make.

      And you know what? Going into the first holiday season when (in theory? argh?) we will have a kid, it was SUCH GOOD PRACTICE. Because this is our fourth married holidays and we started that process early, we now are practiced at setting boundaries of what works for us and what doesn’t (and, interestingly, changing those every year). Which makes it WAY easier to do with a tiny person.

      • Leila

        Thank you for this comment. I am a people pleaser and so we (fiance is Swedish so holidays are generally spent with my family) go to my parents or my brothers (rotates between east coast/midwest). But it is kind of getting old. It seems like it isn’t enough that we show up anymore and now there are expectations about how long we are there. And it feels like because we don’t have kids, we get overlooked. I will definitely work on putting my foot down on things like this.

    • Jen

      we’re a brand new baby family, and my husband’s family – his parents, grandmother, and his brother/wife/2 daughters – live in the suburbs, about a 40 minute drive from us. problem is, we don’t have a car…yet every time there is a holiday or any kind of get together (dinner, brunch, birthday…either with everyone or only some of them) it is always assumed that we will go out to their place. I never understand why they seem to think it’s easier to drive into the city to pick us up, and then drive us back afterwards…wouldn’t it be easier to pile everyone into the car and only have to make the trip once? I guess it would be good practice to start setting some boundaries and putting our foot down about this.

  • KB

    I love this post, it makes me warm-fuzzy happy :-) I love Thanksgiving because, even though there can be stress about travel or cooking or family or whatnot, it’s actually kind of a chill holiday because it’s only one day. There’s no “Thanksgiving season,” no presents, no unrealistic “Thanksgiving miracle” expectations. A perfect time to celebrate your baby family.

    (Although I have to say that the Black Friday creep is starting to intrude on this chill-ness…)

  • This post really hits home. Emily, I’m glad you’ve found your peace with the holiday, as I’m in a similar situation and have yet to find mine.

    My partner and I are from PA, but have been living in NE for the past year and a half for his graduate studies. The Thanksgiving holiday is too short to drive back, and too expensive to fly back, so we stay in our new home. I would prefer being back east for this holiday and spending Christmas here just the two of us, but that’s just not the logistically or financially practical solution right now. Last year, I worked Thanksgiving morning, and we eventually went out to dinner (thanks to living in a football town, there were many “away” fans also in town for the holiday). I would love to do a really nice dinner out tomorrow, but very few places are open (understandably!). So I definitely have a case of the holiday blahs. I’d like to establish a new tradition for just the two of us, but cooking for two for a holiday just seems like emphasizing the fact that we aren’t having a huge dinner with our extended families.

    I might be a grinch this Thanksgiving. So thanks for reminding me to be thankful for where I am, Emily.

    • Martha

      My fiance and I are both from PA as well and we live in MO – we went home the first year we were here and it was rough! The past 2 years we’ve stayed put and his parents have come here (luckily his family is small, so this works well). I am looking forward to one day hosting a big Thanksgiving. Getting started small is great. We have our little Thanksgiving and a little Easter dinner with just the two of us – it seems like a lot of work for two people, but it is worth it – I promise! Come down to MO! You can eat with us :-)

      • Thanks, Martha! I appreciate your hospitality! A friend of mine suggested cooking Cornish hens for two :-) The thing to remember seems to be: deep breath, big smile, be thankful. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Ali

    Thanks so much for this post. This is the first Thanksgiving I’m spending apart from my family to be with my boyfriend. My mom’s taking it really badly, as she always hosts and feels like it’s the end of a family tradition. Thanks for helping to remind me that building our own traditions and our baby family (and standing firm on those decisions even when others don’t understand or disagree) can be just as important!

    • KB

      I sympathize – it’s so hard to please everybody, and it feels like the end of the world to some family members if you don’t come home for Thanksgiving/Hannukkah/Christmas/etc. But it’s just growing pains. They’ll hopefully get comfortable (or used to) the idea of spreading the love for the holidays. It’s not just important for your baby family, but important for you as an independent adult.

      • Marie

        This is very encouraging, KB. Thank you.

        • KB

          I try…I’ll need some of that come Christmas when I’m headed to my fiance’s parents’ place, ha!

  • This is our third Thanksgiving together, but the first where I’m not seeing my family. We tried to do both families across two states our first year, then decided to just do one family per holiday. So last year was my family, this year is his family. So I’m a little sad, but looking forward to establishing our own traditions, like a Black Friday “dateiversary” of our first date and Chinese food on Christmas Eve.

  • Jessica

    I’ve been doing this for years! A few years ago we couldn’t make any family meals because of work so I made dinner for the two of us. Now we gather a few other stragglers, but it’s still really small (this year will be about 5-6 people total). I still envision being able to someday host in a big beautiful house with family flying in to be there, but until then I still make all the holiday favorites for whoever wants to cram into our apartment.

  • Not Sarah

    I jokingly told my parents that I should cook Thanksgiving dinner next year. I’m not sure that I’m ready to cook a turkey, but I think my mom is tired of cooking a turkey almost every year in October (Canadian Thanksgiving) and Christmas for the last almost thirty years. I have enough space for them to sleep, visitor parking, and I’m only two hours away! I think that would be a a good thing to try :)

    In 2010, I was in Paris over Thanksgiving. In 2011, my mom’s mom wasn’t doing well, so we nixed our plans to spend it together and she went up to visit *her* mom. In 2012, I was traveling for work again. Maybe in 2013, I’ll be at my home with my parents.

    American Thanksgiving has been so much easier to plan around. I had two potluck dinners in 2010, went to my parents’ and had no turkey in 2011, and now I’m sitting at the airport waiting for a flight to go to by my boyfriend’s parents’ for a few days in Texas, which is so the opposite of Canada.

    Some day, I look forward to hosting both Thanksgivings and Christmas in my home. None of this flying on holidays stuff. I thought I got away from that by making sure I was within 150 miles of my parents’ house and almost all of my extended family ;)

    • meg

      ALSO. Re: Paris. International travel on American Thanksgiving week is dead brillant. We haven’t done this (yet) as a married couple, but we did it back when we were young and way too poor for anyone to expect us to come home to CA. It was the first time I left the country sans school sponsored trip, and the only way I could afford it… because going to England that week? CHEAP. Just, word to the wise :)

  • Daynya

    LOVE this. It is not our first Thanksgiving together at home, but it is our first as a married couple. We had a big trip to PA planned to see family, but due to total exhaustion from getting married last month (and also lack of funds), and family issues that have since come up…we just decided to cancel and are ecstatic! While I do feel bad that we won’t spend this holiday (my favorite ever) with who we were planning, I’m also completely giddy with doing our own thing, and honoring our baby family’s needs. It’s a good feeling to stand up for ourselves and say no, we’re doing this on our own. I feel all warm inside just thinking about watching movies on the couch, while lazily cooking up our feast. Happy Thanksgiving, enjoy every minute!

  • Mmm, I know that weird feeling of “visiting family, but missing family.” It feels good to create your own home and traditions (even outside of the holidays, just everyday stuff), and I never realize how important those are to me until I spend a few days away from them.

    Husband’s family lives like an hour away, so we’ve always ended up there for Thanksgiving, and probably will continue to for who-knows-how-long. My family is across the country, and luckily, they’re really good sports about it.

    Also, cornbread stuffing and pumpkin cheesecake? YUM! I want to go to your place for dinner!

  • AmeLeigh

    This totally hit home! This is our 1st married holiday season and I’m feeling like we’re the forgotten ones this year. He works retail so he only has Thanksgiving and Christmas off and both of our families have planned celebrations on off days so he more than likely won’t be able to make any of them. Not either of the 2 Thanksgivings, or the 2 Christmas’ or the family holiday pictures. It made me sad that we’d be missing so many family things this year. So I am making a meal for just the two of us on those days so we can celebrate together. I shared my feelings with my sister and she said she’d come spend Christmas day with us to help cook. I’m wondering if this will be a new family tradition, hosting my sibs day-of while they are in town for larger family functions that are being held on off days :)

  • Marie

    I loved this post. We are newlyweds and hosting Thanksgiving for the first time, which makes me excited and a little nervous. It was the easiest way to merge our two families’ celebrations. Last year we did two separate Thanksgivings, one with my family followed immediately by one with his family, and all I can say is, no thanks on doing that again. We ate almost identical meals one after another! So, this will be more work for us but I expect it to be much, much better overall. I am just so grateful that both sets of parents were willing to roll with it, even though I know they all had to let go a little from what they’ve done for so many years.

    I nodded my head when she wrote about the pressure to visit family, esp. because of an elderly grandma. Some of my family members are all in a tizzy because we are not traveling to my grandma’s for Christmas this year. We just…can’t. The pressure and guilt-tripping makes me feel badly. We are trying to hold our own, though, because we are a new family unit now and we need to make the best decision for us. It doesn’t mean we don’t love everyone. But, this year, the old way won’t work for us, and we are going to start new traditions and new approaches to the holidays, together.

  • It is lovely to read about Thanksgiving. My husband and I are both from Colombia, now living in the USA. We’ve never celebrated the holiday and don’t know what to make of it. This has been the perfect opportunity for starting to establish our own traditions that will continue in years to come: we will have a day off when everyone else has family plans and all stores are closed. It is up to us to decide what we want to do with it! So far? The plan is to watch a 3D movies in empty movie theaters, then come home to eat a carry out meal from our local bistro’s thanksgiving menu.

  • Sarah

    Jewish holidays seem to come in twos — ie there are two sedar nights for passover, two days of rosh hashana, etc. I’ve started to believe that this is a “thing” Jewish mothers around the world invented, because in Israel there is only one sedar, one rosh hashana meal. My recently married sister simply spends one night at our house, and another night with her husband’s family.

  • Aero

    I have spent many holidays away from my family. It’s a bit of an adventure. I like to call/Skype home. The little trick I have found is to do it first thing in the morning before the chaos hits. It’s nice to have a quiet chat my parents or siblings when they have the time and headspace. Rather than being passed around like a batten at lunch and hear 20 random halloes, and if I’m just on the phone no one can see me in my pjs.

  • Not really related to this post, but, my uncle is spending Thanksgiving separate from my aunt this year for the first time in God-knows-how-many years, because he is a utility worker on the volunteer* crew putting power and utility lines back together in NY and NJ, post-Sandy. They both grew up downstate and still have family and friends there, so he felt very strongly about being down there and helping. It’s a little sad he won’t be with us this year, but I know he feels really good about his decision to stay down there, and so does my aunt (even though she’ll miss him, too, I am sure).

    *He’s not working for FREE … I mean volunteer in the sense that he was not obligated to go (or, for that matter, to stay over the holiday), but he chose to.

    • Just want to say THANK YOU to your uncle as one of the Jersey-ans who is oh-so-grateful to the utility workers for putting our lines and poles back together. We were out of power for 13 days, and I will never forget seeing those trucks from Tennessee roll down our street for the first time…

  • Snow Gray

    I can so definitely relate to this post. I moved to England with my husband less than three weeks ago, with nothing but a couple of suitcases. He is working today but we’ll be having a turkey dinner tonight (since they’ve started putting out turkey for Christmas here).

    I have been struggling a lot with the oddness of being so far away from my family of origin today, especially being in a country where it’s just a Thursday. This post and the replies have given me a different perspective. Thanks APW x

    • Peabody_Bites

      Happy Thanksgiving from an American in London (who has spent all day at her desk, what with it being just a Thursday).

      Have a lovely evening just the two of you – and pity me hosting 14 people for dinner tonight. Not for Thanksgiving, just because….

  • This was (I think) my ninth year hosting an ‘all are welcome’ Thanksgiving. Honestly, it’s been so fun doing this. While I do certainly miss how my dad’s family does Thanksgiving, making the trip there is just no longer feasible. Add in that my parents no longer live in that geographic area, and there are just a lot of emotions involved. So instead, I now announce at least a month in advance, that everyone is welcome at my house, and I’ll make the base of the meal. It’s so nice to not have to spend all the money to travel, or deal with all the emotional baggage that would go along with deciding whose family to spend a holiday with (my parents are in rural VA, most of my “family” is in NY, while my fiance’s family is in PA). And other people to appreciate having somewhere to go for a low key yet yummy meal.

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