Over this past week, we celebrated the quintessential American holiday: Thanksgiving. Only Canada and the US celebrate this holiday. I'm not sure that the Canadian holiday holds as much meaning as it does in the US. So why is this holiday so important and what cultural values are embedded in our celebration of this holiday?
First, let's speak about cultural frameworks. Many researchers use Hofestede's framework. However, I prefer Hall's anthropological framework for cultural analysis, specifically, the high context/low context basis of analysis. The US is a fairly low context culture, meaning that the culture is open to those that have not been born into the culture. It is not necessary to understand the "context" of the culture as there are few rules, but those that there are rarely are broken. It is not necessary to understand the context of the holidays, for example, in order to understand the rituals.
So what are the features of Thanksgiving that gives an insight into the US culture?
Even though we are known for our urban centers in the US (NY City, LA, Chicago, New Orleans), we still have our roots in Agriculture. The land, food, and even patterns of life are based around the agrarian lifestyle. Our school calender is still around the harvest. Depending on where a person lives, the calender will change. In the Northeast, where we have late summers and late falls, our school calender is late by definition of the rest of the country. Thanksgiving is basically a holiday of the harvest, as we celebrate with a core set of dishes (Turkey, mashed potatoes, sweat potatoes, pumpkin and apple pies, squash) that are traditionally harvested late in the fall. However, like the rest of the country, there are regional differences, again based on the regional cultures.
Last Thanksgiving, our family celebrated Thanksgiving in Georgia, where the food was a bit sweeter and richer, with pecans, cream, and cornmeal playing a key role in the side dishes. My own family used to include foods such as dried fruit, green beans, and stale bread stuffing. My husband's family used sausage in making their stuffing for the turkey, and side dishes that reflected his family's Italian roots.
One aspect of Thanksgiving which is unique to other US holidays is the importance of going home. This is more than going home to be with family, it also is a time to reconnect with the community in which one grew up. Perhaps a result of an agrarian culture which became mobile (as people moved to the cities or other parts of the country for better opportunities), many people take the time out to go back to visit school friends, extended family, and reconnect with their past. This is unique for a culture that tends not to look to its past. However, it is more than just seeing old friends.
Many high schools have official or unofficial reunions. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving (this holiday is always on a Thursday) is a big day for the bars and local restaurants as people go out to be with their friends they have not seen for some time. This is truly one of the most social times of the year. The Wednesday before is also the biggest travel day of the year. Interestingly enough, this "migration" reminds me of the biblical census time where everyone was expected to go back to the town in which they were born. I also feel the same sense of connection to community as I did on Election Day in Costa Rica in which most voters returned to their home town to vote. There is a connection with the past and the present; with those who were brought up with the same values even though they may have changed and have different values today.
Interestingly enough, if you were to see the portrayal of Thanksgiving on television, you would think that is was the most important part of this holiday. While family is more important than many other US holidays (e.g. Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day), who we spend our Thanksgiving is an indication of how we define "family". In some cases, family is extended, in others it is nuclear, and still in others it is a close set of friends.
What we do as a family also varies. In my own family, when we were growing up, we would go outside and play American football. For many years we spent Thanksgiving at my grandparents' house on Long Island. The day after Thanksgiving, my father would take us into New York City once we were old enough (I think 6 or 7), to look at the Christmas decorations and have Shirley Temples (punch) at the Plaza Hotel. My own family has a tradition of going for a walk after dinner and before dessert is served. This too is an insight into our culture, as each family creates their own traditions on Thanksgiving.
To me, when I lived outside of the US, Thanksgiving was the hardest holiday NOT to celebrate. It seemed so AMERICAN. Perhaps that is why we always celebrated it as expatriates. We often had a feeling of real nostalgia and it was difficult to explain the "spirit" of Thanksgiving to non-Americans. For anyone who lives outside of the US, if you want to capture the true American spirit, I would suggest that you spend a Thanksgiving in the US. It is unlike any other holiday here.
- V Yonkers
- Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.