When Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, he did so at the height of the American Civil War by inviting fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving. It was a relatively simple proclamation designed to heal the wounds of a nation at war with itself.
Like many of my international colleagues, there are a million versions of how this event has been commemorated, from roasting ostrich to alligator (in a pinch) and everything in between, to hilarious translations of its meaning, the football watching, and the illogic connection to the shopping season. But in spite of the many impromptu interpretations (Thanksgiving fish, really?) the one thing that has always endured is that no commercialism, no travel, or culture can take away the simple act of sharing gratitude.
We got lucky this year.
Without turkeys, television, or turnip, my family and I went on a bike ride in a place really far from the coast of where our relatives live, and we found a way to capture the tradition of giving thanks that grounded us, as it does everyone who is ‘sojourning in foreign lands’ according to Mr. Lincoln.
And so we gave thanks,
To the Buddhist monk who paddled up to us in his canoe at sunrise, accepting our offerings as he said a prayer for peace.
To the man peeling a mountain of coconuts for pennies a day, to feed his family.
To the couple outside a temple who asked us where we were from and laughed with us as we took pictures of one another, each foreigners in a foreign place.
To our guide, who blessed us with his own stories of tradition, family and giving thanks.
To the driver who shared his watermelon.
To the schoolchildren (pictured above) who showed my own children what it means to want a better life, even without computers, swimming pools or climbing walls.
To the man who shared bread with us so that we could feed fish for good luck.
My culture’s taking a beating right now across the board, but this annual Thursday I’m hanging my hat on. So on that day in a far away place, the Thanksgiving fish was fresh, the hands we held were loved, and the gratitude of simple acts reminded us why we are in this international business of trying to make the world a little better.